Years ago, if you were traveling from Charles Towne in the Carolinas to one of the grand plantations a few miles northwest along the Ashley River, chances are you went by boat. Even long before Europeans settled the area, Ashley River was the major route linking the coast and settlements inland.
Fast-forward a couple of centuries to today and the more common route between Charleston, S.C., and the plantations is paved. Named the Ashley River Road, it’s the 11 mile stretch of Highway 61 that bisects the Ashley River Historic District, and is worthy of the National Scenic Byway designation.
Hickory and oak trees line the two-lane road on either side, interspersed with fan-like palmettos, sweet gums, pyracanthas lavish with orange berries, and enormous live oaks draped in gray beards of Spanish moss. Tentacle-like, gnarled branches of the ancient oaks have woven together high overhead into a leafy jade canopy.
But although the drive is lovely, it isn’t the main reason visitors come to this “Lowcountry” locale. That would be the plantations, though few remain of the nearly two dozen that stood before the Civil War. Three can be visited today: Drayton Hall, the only plantation house to largely survive both the American Revolution and Civil War; Magnolia, with the oldest public garden in the country; and Middleton Place, once a fine three-building residence of which only the “south flanker,” or original gentlemen’s guest quarters, was not destroyed.
The remains of the Fort Bull Confederate Earthworks are also in the historic district, near Bees Ferry and Ashley River Road (from where the British staged the capture of Charleston in 1780). The fort was built by slave labor around 1863, but was evacuated by the time Union troops arrived toward the end of the war. Today the earthworks are hidden behind the trees.
We learned about the historic district and designated scenic byway from an RVer friend. For years she has spent nearly every vacation in South Carolina.
“The Ashley is a gorgeous drive that you can make in 20 minutes,” she said. “But to see all it has to offer you’ll need at least two days.” My husband, Guy, and I allowed two days, and later wished for three. Parking is available at the plantations, but we took our friend’s advice and left the fifth-wheel at the Mount Pleasant/Charleston KOA.
Our first stop was at Drayton Hall, set imposingly back from the road, with views through gardens of the meandering, sky-blue river. Drayton Hall now occupies 125 acres, but the massive oaks that statue the lawns have been here since before John Drayton, the first of his family’s seven generations to own the plantation, began construction of the house in 1738.
Guide Betsy McAmis noted the African slaves brought here by the Draytons and their descendents also lived on the plantation for seven generations.
Built of bricks made on the premises by the slaves — the family owned about 50 — the two-story mansion, with raised basement and double projecting portico, is considered one of the country’s finest examples of Georgian-Palladian architecture, said McAmis. Drayton Hall was completed in 1742 and occupied by the family for the next 120 years.
Now a National Historic Landmark, the home has survived a variety of disasters. Drayton was the only Ashley River plantation not burned by Union troops during the Civil War. But two of its “flankers,” which early drawings show connected to the house by colonnades, were not so fortunate: though spared by soldiers, the laundry house was destroyed by an earthquake in 1886, and a hurricane took down the kitchen seven years later. Local historians say Drayton may have been saved because Union troops believed it was being used as a hospital for smallpox patients.
McAmis points out that although cattle raised by Thomas Drayton, Jr., John Drayton’s father, on adjacent Magnolia Plantation “were the foundation of the family’s wealth,” Drayton Hall grew rice, which was a profitable crop during Colonial times. Before his house was complete John Drayton began developing fields, building dikes to keep salt water out, and ditches and gates to bring fresh water in, as rice fields must periodically be flooded.
After the Civil War the Draytons used the home only as a country retreat. In 1974 the family sold Drayton Hall to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and it was opened to the public three years later. Today it is preserved in its mid-19th century appearance.
Several programs and self-guided tours are available, including “Connections: From Africa to America” which explores the lives of 18th and 19th century African Americans; “A Sacred Place” that describes Drayton Hall’s still-used 18th century African-American cemetery, 30-minute “River Walk” and 45-minute “Marsh Walk.” There’s also a fine book and gift shop.
Admission is $18 for adults, $8 for ages 12-18 and $6 for ages 6-11. For other information contact Drayton Hall: 3380 Ashley River Road, Charleston, SC, 29414, 843-769-2600, www.draytonhall.org.
Magnolia Plantation, the “South’s most complete plantation experience,” is one mile north of Drayton Hall. The 500-acre plantation, with some of the most spectacular gardens you’ll see anywhere, has been home to the Drayton family since 1676, says Operations Manager Mary Ann Johnson. Now managed by members of the twelfth and thirteenth generations of the family, it’s the oldest plantation on the Ashley River, and is believed to be South Carolina’s oldest still under original family ownership.
Thomas Drayton, Jr., who had left England for Barbados with his father in the mid 1600’s, came to the Carolinas in the 1670’s, she said. Here he married Ann Fox whose father, Stephen Fox, gave the plantation to the couple as a wedding present.
Early drawings show the original house, built in the 1680’s, as similar in style to Drayton Hall. It burned in 1811 and was replaced with a three-story home of cypress built atop the brick first floor of its predecessor. Fifty-four years later the second house also met a fiery fate at the hands of Union troops during the Civil War, Johnson said.
Today’s elegant dwelling, which includes a wrap-around porch added in 1995, was built 14 miles upriver in 1760 as a summer cottage. After the war cost the Rev. John Drayton, Magnolia’s eighth owner, most of his wealth as well as his home, he had the cottage dismantled and barged here and rebuilt on the burned-out first floor of the second house.
With the additions and changes made over the years, the home hardly resembles its original, humble appearance. Guided tours are available, and showcase the family’s collections of early-American antiques, porcelain, quilts and more.
Magnolia is known for its 30 acres of magnificent gardens continuously planted since the 1680’s. Highlights are the Biblical Garden, Herb Garden, Camellia Garden and Barbados Tropical Garden. There are flowering trees and plants in bloom year-round.
Visitors pay admission for access to the garden and grounds. Other tours are extra and include: “Nature Tram,” narrated rides that explain plantation history, flora and fauna; “From Slavery to Freedom,” a discussion of African-American life here before and after the war; “Nature Boat,” narrated tours of Magnolia’s 135-acre marsh; and “Audubon Swamp Garden,” self-guided tours along a boardwalk that crosses the 60-acre black water cypress and tupelo swamp.
With time for just two of the tours, Guy and I chose “From Slavery to Freedom” and “Nature Boat.” With guide Mike Laskavy and other visitors, we climbed aboard a tram and rode to a “street” of African-American cabins, four humble dwellings dating from the 1850’s to the 1960’s. All were occupied into the 1990’s, he said.
The slave trade constituted the “largest forced migration in history,” he said, with 15 to 20 million Africans taken into slavery. Just 10 to 12 million survived the horrendous trip to the New World. More than half were taken to Brazil to work coffee or rubber plantations or silver mines, a third to the Caribbean sugar plantations; and the rest, about 500,000, to North America to grow rice, a crop raised in Africa for centuries. By the time of the American Revolution, Carolina rice fields were yielding 60 million bushels a year. Slaves brought other skills as well, such as blacksmithing, woodworking, brick making and weaving.
The “Nature Boat” tour, on a large pontoon with Don Hartseen as guide, plies a pristine-looking marsh he says was once private hunting ground and is now wildlife preserve. The marsh is home to several hundred alligators — a handful were even dozing near the water; 30 varieties of snakes, turtles, and numerous bird species, marsh hens, anhinga and great blue herons among others.
Hartsteen explains the ins and outs of growing rice — the “Carolina gold that made planters rich.” In turn, fields would be drained through the year, weeds burned off, fields raked, rice seeds broadcast, fields flooded, and so on. After harvest, the crop would be taken to Charleston for milling, then England to be taxed, Hartsteen said.
At the start of the Civil War, Rev. Drayton was one of the South’s wealthiest landowners. But the war, locally referred to afterward as “the Recent Unpleasantness,” reduced him to near-poverty. Rebuilding cost him a townhouse, sea island plantation and much of Magnolia. Still financially strapped, he opened the garden to the public in 1870, making it America’s oldest man-made tourist attraction.
Admission is $15 for adults, $10 for ages 6-12; $8 for each of the five tours; admission and tours free for age five and younger. For information contact Magnolia Plantation; 3550 Ashley River Road, Charleston, SC, 29414, 800-367-3517, www.magnoliaplantation.com.
Middleton Place, also a survivor of the Revolution and Civil War and with significant damage, is about four miles north of Drayton Hall. Built in 1706, Middleton originally consisted of a main house and two flankers, said guide Mary Hart. The north flanker contained a library with 10,000 books and numerous oil and watercolor paintings. The south flanker housed the plantation office and sleeping quarters for guests.
Henry Middleton acquired the plantation through his marriage to Mary Williams in 1741, and over the next 124 years it housed four successive generations prominent in American history, Hart said. Henry was the second president of the First Continental Congress; Arthur succeeded him in the next Continental Congress and was a signer of the Declaration of Independence; the second Henry was a governor of South Carolina and minister to Russia; and his son William was a signer of the Ordinance of Secession four years before Union troops set fire to the beautiful home on February 22, 1865.
The house and north flanker were destroyed — and remain, nearly a century and half later, a heap of brick rubble. But after the war the less seriously damaged south flanker was restored, and was the family’s residence until 1974. A year later, Middleton opened to the public as a National Historic Landmark.
Today, guided tours lead through an antique world of opulence, rooms of fine furniture, walls hung with portraits, glass cases displaying the family’s silver, porcelain, ornate jewelry, books and documents.
The plantation also includes a reflecting pool, springhouse and chapel, gardens, museum shop, carriage house and stable yards, where costumed reenactors demonstrate 18th and 19th century life.
General admission to Middleton is $25 for adults, $10 for ages 6-13; house tours $12; carriage rides $18. For information contact Middleton Place, 4300 Ashley River Road, Charleston, SC, 29414-7206.
Comparatively recent conflicts like World War II have countless relics you can see, touch and, in some cases, listen to all over the world — equipment, battlefields and survivors with firsthand accounts of their lives during wartime. As the Civil War has been over for nearly 150 years, much of its physical evidence was destroyed by weather and time, yet the story of its history is still being discovered and told at unique sites like the plantations we visited in South Carolina.
Starting at the coastal Atlantic city of Charleston, with its historic architecture and charming neighborhoods, the Ashley River Road National Scenic Byway winds its way westward through towering oaks and beautiful country. If you take the time to stop, you’ll also get a firsthand glimpse at one of early America’s most trying, divisive and definitive periods that should never be forgotten.
Ashley River Road Connects the South’s Living History