I wanted a wooden launch, as small craft like the one I had in mind used to be called before pleasure boats became big business and more glamorous designations such as cabin cruiser and sportsfisherman were bestowed upon them, one that resembled the kind used by coastal watermen to make a living.
A sailboating friend of mine once accused me of exhibiting a kind of reverse snobbery when it came to boats. I liked them old, preferably wooden, and I gave them names like Bill James, Barbara P., Little Eva, and Mudtoad. It got me to thinking; there was some truth to the accusation. The question, however, is Why? What is the particular attraction that workboats and other such utilitarian craft hold for me?
My admiration for workboats goes a long way back, all the way to my childhood and a place called Adger”‘s Wharf. Located at the head of Tradd Street on the Charleston waterfront, Adger”‘s Wharf was actually two wharves, a north and a south, and it was mostly given over to small commercial craft. When I was a teenager in Charleston in the 1930s and early 1940s, I spent many hours there and elsewhere along the city waterfront. In retrospect, I can see that the downtown waterfront in Charleston had a meaning for me that went considerably beyond the customary attraction that such things ordinarily have.
Let us assume, first of all, that no very extraordinary psychological explanation is needed at this point for why I, or any other adolescent male, might have been fascinated with boats, trains, and the like. Let us assume also that for a youth growing up in a small southern city with ambitions for a career as a journalist and writer, the ships and trains that left the city for other places far and wide held a symbolic place in my imagination for that reason in itself.
Beyond these, however, other factors are involved which, if I am to tell the story properly, must be explored and understood. It is necessary first of all to try to explain my particular place, and my family”‘s, in the Charleston scene, and to show how Adger”‘s Wharf, its workboats, and the downtown waterfront in general fit into the picture.
When I was young, there were not one but two different and seemingly discrete Charlestons. For more than one reason, they could be designated as Uptown and Downtown.
Downtown Charleston was the old part of the city, with buildings that dated back to colonial times. It was the city that the tourists came to see, and where the Old Charlestonians lived, the families whose forebears were the antebellum rice planters and merchant princes. Downtown Charleston was a city of narrow, sometimes winding streets with quaint and historical names like Longitude Lane and St. Michael”‘s and Price”‘s and Bedon”‘s and Stoll”‘s and Do As You Choose Alleys and Tradd and Church and Water and Gibbes and Legar”” and Lamboll and Orange and East Bay. In church affiliation it was Episcopalian and Huguenot and Presbyterian, with a few Unitarians and Congregationalists and Jews whose tenure often went back to colonial and early federal times. Downtown people were lawyers and doctors and professors and realtors and bankers and stockbrokers and businessmen and artists and writers and newspaper editors. Black people Downtown were Colorful and Primitive and wore bandannas and spoke Gullah and they went about the streets hawking fish and shrimp and produce and everyone knew their picturesque vending cries. The women wore uniforms and had names like Viola and Evalina.
Downtown was laden with history, and its residents talked about and some few even remembered the Firing on Fort Sumter, and Downtown was where there had been pirates and privateers and Revolutionary War heroes and blockade runners and Civil War generals. The big houses Downtown had outbuildings behind them which had once been slave quarters. Downtown there was Culture and Art and Poetry, and painters and etchers made illustrations of the famous Sword Gates and St. Michael”‘s Church and the Flower Ladies on its portico and other quaint scenes, and authors wrote poems and sketches extolling the uniqueness of the Carolina Low-country, and the Dock Street Theatre performed plays, and there were concerts and recitals. Downtown was the place of the College of Charleston, the nation”‘s oldest municipal college, and the Historical Society and the Library Society and the New England Society, and also the St. Cecilia Society, where the females of the gentry made their debuts.
Downtown was White Point Gardens and the Battery, with Fort Sumter visible across at the harbor mouth, and where the Fort Sumter Hotel, and also the Villa Marguerita (which didn””t accept Jews as guests), were located. Downtown families were named Alston and Ball and Barnwell and Drayton and FitzSimons and Huger and Lowndes and Manigault and Maybank and Mazyck and Smythe and Pinckney and Porcher and Rhett and Simons (with one m only) and Stoney and VanderHorst and Waring; sometimes they even bore two of the names at the same time. For recreation the Downtown residents kept sailing craft at the Carolina Yacht Club and the Yacht Basin, and they went sailing off the Battery and held regattas and raced Snipes and scows and cruised in handsome yawls and ketches and schooners. They played tennis and golf. They hunted ducks in the abandoned rice fields of the Low-country. They rode horseback and held fox hunts and steeplechase races. Downtown, in sum, was patrician and cultured and historical and scenic and romantic and literary. When you read about Charleston in a poem or a book it was always Downtown Charleston. If you saw a picture of Charleston in a magazine, or in a painting or watercolor, Downtown Charleston was what was portrayed.
Uptown, by contrast, was plebeian and middle-class and ordinary and not at all scenic and cultured and literary. Uptown people were named Bowman and Bierfischer and Blanchard and Bolchoz and Burmester and Castanes and Cohen and Connolly and Condon and Dennis and Finkelstein and Hesse and Jones and Karesh and McLaughlin and Morse and Muckenfuss and Murphy and Pearlstine and Rosen and Rubin and Shokes and Simmons (with two m”‘s) and Smith (spelled with an i, not a “”) and Thomas and Wineberg. The Uptown streets were straight and not narrow, and bore names like Maple and Poplar and Cypress and Peachtree and Grove and Line and Bogard and Allen and Cleveland and Alberta and Dunnemann. Uptown there were no lanes and no alleys.
Uptown people were Baptists and Methodists and Lutherans and Catholics and Greeks and Jews. They were storekeepers and carpenters and mechanics and salesmen and policemen and Navy Yard workers and clerks and certified public accountants and dentists and Power Company linemen and railroad men and streetcar conductors and bus drivers and branch managers and merchants and pharmacists. The black people who worked Uptown did not wear bandannas and uniforms and did not sell flowers and were not picturesque.
Uptown there was nothing Historical. There were railroad stations and freight yards and, north of the city limits, a few factories and the Navy Yard. There was a park with flowers and duck ponds and a zoo, and the campus of The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, but the park was not old and the campus was a new one, not the historic Old Citadel of pink stucco buildings that was there when the cadets fired on the steamship Star of the West at the outbreak of the War Between the States.
Uptown there were no old and quaint buildings and gateways. The houses had front porches, not piazzas, with lawns and gardens fronting the street and in clear view, not in the sideyard and back and visible only through closed gates. No tourists came from afar to see Uptown Charleston; the guide books did not describe its quaint charm. There were no historical societies Uptown, and girls who lived Uptown did not make their debuts.
For recreation the Uptown people went to the movies, to baseball games at College Park, and to boxing matches, and played baseball and basketball and poker, and if they had boats they were powered by gasoline engines, not sails, and were used for fishing. They did not race in regattas. When they played golf it was at the Municipal Links, not the Country Club. They were interested in cars and they did not own horses and go fox hunting. Uptown people did not write or read poems, publish books, or do paintings and etchings. Uptown, in short, was middle-class and democratic and everyday and practical, and very, very Real.
Socially, the city of Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s was a very class-conscious city. As usually happens in such a place, not only the descendants of the pre”CCivil War plantation gentry, most of whom lived south of Broad Street, but all the other elements in the population, from the top to the bottom of the social scale, were divided into strata. Each successive stratum aspired to the next higher on the scale, and looked down on the stratum just below it. Another word for this is snobbery””and Charleston was a very snobbish place. This was true of the Protestants, the Roman Catholics, the Jews, the Greeks; it was true of the whites and the blacks. One reason for this was that there wasn””t much money around Charleston in those days. Persons in search of prestige and status, therefore, could look for the manifestations of those only back in the past, before the War Between the States, and so inherited social position was all there was to be snobbish about.
The Jewish community was divided into two groups’”Uptown and Downtown. K. K. Beth Elohim was the Downtown, Reform congregation””the oldest Reform temple in the United States. B””rith Sholom and another synagogue were the Uptown, Orthodox congregations. Their division was not really geographical, but reflected the degree of each group”‘s assimilation into the local culture. The Reform congregation was made up of what remained of the old Sephardic Jewish families of colonial and early federal days, the German Jewish families of the middle and late nineteenth century, and some latecomers. The Orthodox congregations were mostly of more recent advent””Russians and Eastern Europeans who held on more closely to the customs, traditions, and language of the immigrant past, whereas the Reform congregation had largely dispensed with such things. Reform services were in English. Certain responses were written in Hebrew, but few members of the congregation could read them. There was a choir and organ music, and no cantor. The dietary laws were observed in very lax fashion, if at all. In short, the Jewish community was undergoing the same process of assimilation that went on with every American immigrant population from the 1800s onward, and because Charleston was a small city, without enough people of various ethnicities to group themselves into sizeable enclaves, the assimilative process was more rapid.
When I look back and try to make sense of what was involved, certain things strike me. The Downtown, Reform congregation, to which my family belonged, was very small; there were only three people in our Sabbath School confirmation class. The congregation had dwindled away over the years, as people moved away, intermarried, were assimilated into the Protestant community, and so on; in truth it was a dying community, and even in certain respects no longer had an ethnic identity at all. The result was that by the time of my generation””the generation that grew up in the 1930s and 1940s’”those who remained held on self-consciously to their position, looked down socially upon the Orthodox community, and prided themselves on the supposed absence of ethnic identity. Judaism, they told themselves, was not an ethnic matter, but purely religious and theological (this, of course, while across the Atlantic the Nazis were making no such distinction at all).
Snobbery always involves pretense, of course. The person who places a premium upon social status is trying to prove something. My own family, for example, did not extend back lengthy generations into Charleston life; my grandfather was European born””and in East Prussia or Lithuania, not in western Europe””and came to the city only in the 1880s. Yet for reasons not quite clear to me””perhaps because my New York City””born grandmother had a sister who was of considerably longer residence in Charleston and was married to a tailor who was a Confederate veteran””we were unquestionably part of the Downtown congregation.
As I look back, I realize the extent to which my generation imbibed this way of thinking and feeling from infancy on. In effect we were raised and tutored in such snobbery. Yet we were not wealthy, and moreover geographically we lived far uptown. My boyhood friends were almost all Uptown””but not Jewish; there were no Jewish families living within two miles of our house. But the Uptown/Downtown division I have sought to describe was by no means limited to or even especially characteristic of the Jewish population. It was part of a whole way of looking at the world. And in my own case the division was intensified by certain other factors.
The result was that in actuality I lived in two worlds when I was growing up. In the Uptown world I played baseball and hung around the Hampton Park Pharmacy and the playground during the summer, and worked and wrote sports stories for the newspaper and went to the movies with girls. At the same time, I had strong interests that were very much associated with Downtown; I read history and was fascinated by it, listened to classical music, read books of poetry and fiction, began attending plays and concerts, and tried to write poems and stories.
Living as I did in two worlds, I was not wholly or fully of either, the more so because my literary ambitions and my interest in music and history were solitary activities, shared by none of my friends. Thus in my imagination, as someone who would some day become a writer, Uptown and Downtown were discrete worlds, linked by the slender umbilical cord of the Rutledge Avenue trolley and, later, bus that I rode from our house far uptown to the downtown city on the point of the peninsula.
And that is where Adger”‘s Wharf and the workboats come in. Their fascination for me, and the fascination of the Cooper River waterfront in general, lay in the unique fusion, geographical, psychological, and cultural, of the two Charlestons that they offered to my imagination.
The small craft berthed at Adger”‘s Wharf were shrimp trawlers, cargo launches that served the nearby sea island communities, commercial fishing boats, the harbor pilot boats, crab buy boats, and a variety of other small boats. At the head of the south wharf were the three tugs of the White Stack Towboat Company. At the base of the north wharf was a large, mostly open-sided shed with a wide galvanized tin roof, where the catches of the shrimping fleet were bought, sorted by an array of black women, iced down, and shipped out. Just upstream and abutting Adger”‘s Wharf was a boatyard with a marine railway and a machine shop. The area was always busy.
Adger”‘s Wharf was considered to be one of the tourist attractions of the city; the trawlers and launches were frequently extolled in magazine articles as contributing to the “”quaintness’” and the “”romantic atmosphere”” of an old seaport town. By the mid-1930s, when I grew old enough to spend time down on the waterfront, make-and-break gasoline engines had replaced the sail power of the once-numerous “‘mosquito fleet”” that seined for shrimp outside the harbor. Before the advent of good roads, and bridges linking the sea islands up and down the coast to the mainland, water transport had provided the principal means of moving passengers and goods, and Adger”‘s Wharf was where many of the small, shallow-draft launches in the island trade had docked. By my time these had mostly succumbed to competition from automobiles and buses. The trawlers and other workboats that did tie up at Adger”‘s Wharf tended to be motley affairs, many of them owned by black fishermen and painted with garish colors and odd decorations, including more than one “”eye”” to ward off the evil spirits lurking in the deep.
With their nets hung out to dry, their trawl boards and donkey engines, and the pungent aroma of dead fish and shrimp spoiling in the hot sun, these workboats were picturesque enough, I suppose, as were the red-hulled Lockwood tugboats with their tall white stacks topped in black, from which wisps of smoke always trailed as their engines were kept ready for duty. And so were the numerous sea gulls that constantly dipped and soared overhead, in wait for whatever might materialize in the way of discarded fish, shrimp, or other organic refuse in the water about the wharf.
Yet I certainly did not think of Adger”‘s Wharf and its inhabitants as scenic, picturesque, colorful, or anything of the sort. The boats I saw there were workboats”designed for commercial duties on the water””and if there was considerable glamour about them for me, it was in their sturdy, practical quality, just as the steam locomotives that came into the city across the Seaboard trestle downstream from our house, or the freighters and tugboats that passed by on the Ashley River, were fascinating to watch.
The sailing craft at the Carolina Yacht Club, downstream from Adger”‘s Wharf, held no interest for me, nor did I feel any desire to go over to the foot of Calhoun Street on the other side of town and look at the sailboats and power yachts that were berthed at the new Yacht Basin on the Ashley River. There was something artificial about these boats, and contrived. They were for show. They were Downtown. Adger”‘s Wharf, and the docks and wharves along the Cooper River from there northward, were what held my attention.
A short distance farther upstream were the Clyde”CMallory Line docks, three large, green-painted closed wharves where the passenger ships that operated between New York City and various South Atlantic and Gulf Coast ports came in from the ocean to discharge and take on passengers and freight. Except for one ship, the Henry R. Mallory, which hauled more freight and fewer passengers than the others, the Clyde Line ships bore Indian names’”the Shawnee, the Iroquois, the Seminole, the Cherokee, and the Algonquin.
They were all small ships as passenger liners went, designed for coastal service and displacing no more than about five thousand tons. In New York Harbor, where the great transatlantic liners were regular callers, they were doubtless considered insignificant affairs indeed; but to a youth who had never seen the likes of the Berengaria, Aquitania, Mauretania, Bremen, Ile de France, Queen Mary, Normandie, or any of the other famed transoceanic greyhounds, they seemed enormous.
The Clyde liner that I saw most often was the Cherokee, a single-stacked ship that berthed along the outside wharf when it called at the docks, and so was visible from the shore. It was there every Saturday morning, and it departed in mid-afternoon. The Algonquin, which was only somewhat larger but which I never saw at that wharf, was my favorite liner, however. When I was six years old and we were spending the summer out on Sullivan”‘s Island across the harbor, my father had gone to New York City on business and had returned aboard the Algonquin. The harbor channel led close to the island, and very early in the morning my mother had taken us down to the beach to see it come by. It was a gray dawn, and misty. My father tipped a deckhand to let him blink a ship”‘s lantern at us from the deck. My father was coming home, to operate his electrical business on King Street and play golf and take me for walks. Thereafter the Algonquin was “‘my”” boat.
I was never to achieve my ambition to travel aboard a Clyde-Mallory liner, however, because when World War II broke out, all coastwise passenger service was suspended, and never afterward resumed. I sometimes wondered what had become of those little ships. Years later I was returning aboard the Constitution from a summer of lecturing in southern France, and out on the stern one evening I struck up a conversation with a black crewman who it turned out had worked aboard the Clyde-Mallory ships during the 1930s. The Cherokee, he told me, met a disastrous end. Its cabins and super-structure were constructed of plywood, he said, and during the war, pressed into duty with the Navy, it was torpedoed by a U-boat off Nova Scotia. The flimsy superstructure crumpled, and the ship went down within a matter of minutes. As for the Algonquin, it had eventually been sold to a Turkish shipping firm, and as far as he knew it was still in service somewhere in the Black Sea.
To the north of the Clyde-Mallory docks, at the foot of Market Street and behind the stately U.S. Custom House, were also numerous small craft, as well as the old Cooper River Ferry terminal. In the 1920s, before the immense twin-spanned Cooper River bridge was built across Charleston Harbor from the city to Mount Pleasant on the western shore, a pair of sizeable ferryboats, the Palmetto and the Lawrence, had provided transportation. The older of the two, the Lawrence, had a pair of tall smokestacks and a large walking-beam atop the cabin; the Palmetto was a diesel-powered craft without such conspicuous trappings. Years later I was struck by a description in William Styron”‘s novel Set This House On Fire of the ferryboats that during his childhood had traveled between Newport News and Norfolk, Virginia: “”those low-slung smoke-belching tubs which had always possessed their own incomparable dumpy glamour.”” For there was a glamour about such craft, boxlike and double-ended, so perfectly adapted to their function.
To drive aboard them, en route to the beach, was an exciting business, the family car clumping down the serrated steel gangway between the huge clusters of pilings ringed at the top, onto the deck and along a narrow avenue to our assigned parking place. Then the rattle of the chains in the sprocket-wheel hoist mechanisms as the gangway was drawn up free of the deck, and the throbbing rumble of the engines and the rocking motion beneath the deck as the ferry moved out from the slip and into the harbor. Usually we got out of the automobile and went up a stairway to the upper deck, to sit on wooden benches and watch as the ferry made its way across the harbor. Midway across, the two ferries, crowded with automobiles, passed each other, engines churning away, firmly intent upon their missions. Then, as the dock drew near and we returned to our automobile, came the abrupt cessation of the engine”‘s pulsating vibration as it disengaged its gears. The ferry glided silently dockward, only to have the engine roar into action again as, this time in reverse, the forward momentum was stemmed and the wide bow of the slowed boat bumped into the pilings and slid by them as they swayed back, then came to a stop in front of the ramp. Then more rattling of chains as the ramp was lowered, the protective guard chains strung across the bow were removed, and one by one the waiting automobiles were flagged forward and bumped across the steel gangway and up the ramp to firm ground.
By the time I was able to visit the waterfront on my own, the Palmetto and the Lawrence had been out of service for several years, the new Cooper River bridge having usurped their clientele. The only ferry still in operation from the dock behind the Custom House was a much smaller, open-decked affair operated by a Captain Baitery, which, powered by a single diesel engine, plied the waters between Charleston and Sullivan”‘s Island. Running an hour each way, it was a much longer journey than straight across to Mount Pleasant by bridge. I watched the boat seemingly creep across the harbor past Castle Pinckney, its engine emitting a thin, droning monotone as it moved along ever so slowly. Still, it was a working ferryboat, and worthy of its own dignity.
The docks farther up the river were where the freighters put in. There were certain regular visitors, such as the Shickshinny, and I could see their yellow masts and cargo above the roofs of the warehouses, but these ships were off limits, unapproachable behind chain link fences. The small, white-hulled steamships of the United Fruit Company”‘s Great White Fleet called regularly, and their operations were open to view from the land. Standing at the foot of the wharf, I could watch the stalks of green bananas coming ashore on roller ladders in a steady stream, to be grasped by black laborers and borne toward the yellow open-doored railroad refrigerator cars, where checkers kept tally as the bananas were loaded for shipment. Outside, beyond the entrance to the dock, long strings of railroad cars were shunted into position.
Strung out all along the shore of the waterfront were the rusty-railed tracks of the Port Utilities Commission, linking the various wharves with the outside world and with sidings leading to warehouses downtown. Occasionally a locomotive would be working these tracks, a small, grimy switcher with standing boards in front of the pistons for brakemen to ride upon as the locomotive distributed some boxcars and collected others. It was a slow, painstaking operation, with the locomotive, one or more boxcars attached, moving back and forth along the tracks, occasionally proceeding up a side track as the brakemen opened the switches. The iron wheels squealed as curves were being negotiated, the locomotive spotting a boxcar or two and emitting considerable smoke and much noise as it came and went.
From Adger”‘s Wharf to the ferryboat dock behind the Custom House was my territory. I knew it all, every step of it, every pier and piling. Most of all, however, it was Adger”‘s Wharf itself that drew me like a magnet. On Saturday mornings I would linger there for hours at a time watching the proceedings, waiting for the tugboats to cast off their lines and go over to the Clyde Line dock to help the Cherokee, now bedecked with pennants, extricate itself and back out into the channel, then swing its stern upstream and proceed southward under its own power, very slowly at first, past Adger”‘s Wharf and the High Battery until it turned eastward in the Ashley River channel and headed off to sea. Eventually the ship was no more than a long low shape in the water out beyond Fort Sumter, and was bound for New York or Jacksonville. But by then it was getting toward late afternoon and time for me to walk up Broad Street to Meeting Street, to the post office. There I would board the Rutledge Avenue car that would take me all the way uptown to Sans Souci Street and home.
It would be many years before I would begin to realize why Adger”‘s Wharf had such significance for me. But one reason I was so drawn to the Charleston water-front””its ships and cargo launches and tugboats and trawlers’”was that it seemed to fuse two discrete realms of my experience; it was the stuff of literature and the imagination, and yet was not self-consciously picturesque or quaint but immediate and real and important to me.
The workboats belonged on the Downtown scene, as that scene figured in my experience, yet they were Uptown in what they did and in how they looked and in the people who worked aboard them. Workboats didn””t sail in regattas, or go cruising along the High Battery with fashionable people aboard; they carried freight and pulled barges and trawled for seafood. But they did those things on the waterfront and in the harbor and along the sea islands, where the Civil War and the British attack on Charleston had taken place and the pirate ships had sailed, about which the poems and stories were written. To be associated with a workboat was to unite those two realms of existence. They were almost the only part of my experience back then that I could identify as representing what I hoped some day to attain: a place for grounding my imagination in actuality.
Nowadays Adger”‘s Wharf is gone from the Charleston waterfront, as are the Clyde-Mallory wharves that were next to it. The area has been made into a park. The ship channel no longer runs along the downtown waterfront, and ships enter the harbor and depart over beyond Castle Pinckney. To see the shrimp trawlers and other such workboats one must travel over to Mount Pleasant, across the harbor. But that is part of Charleston, too, now. It is only in my memory that the city of sixty-two thousand inhabitants, bordered on the north by Mount Pleasant Street and on the south, east, and west by water, divided into an Uptown and Downtown of which I was part of both and of neither, still exists.
When I come back to Charleston now I am a visitor, a tourist, even. I have not lived there for almost half a century, and most of my friends and almost all of my family there are gone as well. Yet my imagination still inhabits the place as it was in the 1920s and 1930s and early 1940s; and what the intervening years have done is not to change the place that my imagination knows, but only the perspective from which I view it.
By having my boat, designed for purposes of pleasure and for going about on the water, built on a workboat hull, I would be contriving an emblem of that transaction.