Chapters in Charleston

Trip Start Feb 15, 2010
Trip End Feb 14, 2011

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Flag of United States  , South Carolina
Monday, March 15, 2010

This morning my first stop was to Charles Towne Landing, the site of the first successful English settlement in the New World.  I have to give kudos to the park for a job well done.  The park was very well laid out.  It included a small but well-executed museum, a large tract of land with a number of reconstructed buildings and fortifications in approximately the style and location where they might have originally been, a historically accurate replica of a 17th century trading ship, and a large mansion and gardens.  I spent more time than I intended there, but I find it hard to pull myself away from places like this.

My next intended stop was to Fort Sumter, but the last boat out to the Fort left about ten minutes before I got to the National Park Service's building and dock.  I did stop inside the building, which was still open, to see the museum they had set up inside with a detailed history on Fort Sumter and the events surrounding and leading up to the Civil War.  Before leaving, I took note of the tour schedule for the next day so I could catch the first ferry out to the island.

Since I was in the area, I strolled over to Waterfront Park and strolled around looking at the fountains, walking out along the pier, and taking some photos until the sky had cooled from a fiery orange to navy blue.  I kept wandering and made my way along the historic streets of Charleston.  Much like Savannah, they had a real charm to them, and this area of town still relates a very strong sense and feel of what the port city was like in centuries gone by.

During my wandering, I stopped to take a photo of one of the many gas lamps that are still used on many of the buildings to add to the historic ambiance.  The lamp was located in front of a large greek style building with ornate iron gates and while I was lining up my shot, an older gentleman in a green jacket asked me if I'd like to come in and take a look around the building.  I inquired as to what the building was (my only clue being a seal with a harp above the doorway and a stone plaque with A.D. 1840 above that), and he insisted that I come in and check it out.  Curious to know what could lay inside such a stately building, I followed him up the stairs, past a sign that said "No Entrance To The Public, No Tours Please", and through the large wooden doors.  The interior seemed mostly unadorned aside from a multiple level balcony leading up to a rotunda with netting hung beneath it to catch falling plaster and dark old portraits of stately-looking men hung in a row down the main hall.  On either side of the entrance was a staircase leading up to the next level and down the hall in front of me was a large dining room with another room holding a bar beyond that.  I could see a number of men sitting around the bar and chatting with each other.  I was slightly dissapointed, having expected something else of the large old building; however, I didn't want to seem unappreciative to the man who had seemed so delighted to invite me in.  He told me to feel free to look around and take some photos and then come meet him at the bar in the back and he'd buy me a drink.  I took a quick look around and tried to snap a couple shots of the rotunda, but the safety netting ruined any hope for a decent photo.  I made my way back towards the bar, and was introduced around the group of five men sitting at the bar.  I can't recall all of their names, but I discovered the identity of the man who brought me in was Tommy Condon, the owner of a very popular local Irish Pub.  After chatting with the men for awhile about who I was and where I came from and hearing the same from them; they asked the younger man behind the bar if he'd like to show me around the rest of a hall.  The bartender seemed happy for a change of duties for the moment and agreed, so off we went. 

It was during this impromptu tour that I came to learn that the building was the Hibernian Hall.  Home to the Hibernian Society, an Irish Catholic fraternal benefit society, and the only building remaining that was used during the Democratic Convention of 1860.  It was here that the Democratic Party was unable to decide on a candidate, which split their party and greatly assisted in the election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency.  The portraits covering the walls were the portraits of each Hibernian Society President since the 18th century.  Many of the men have been prominent members in society and government.  I was told that, collectively, they comprise one of the most valuable portrait collections in the country.  They also have a speaker come in every year for their St. Patrick's Day Celebration and in past years they've had John McCain and Joe Biden.  The bartender took me up through the ball room where five large chandeliers were hung.  He informed me that these opulent light fixtures were among the first gas fixtures to be converted to electric lighting.  We also traversed a couple of old ladders and a short catwalk to get out on the peaked roof of the building for the view.  I also hoped for a couple of photos but the building wasn't quite tall enough for that, and nearby floodlights didn't help.  At least the upper levels afforded me the opportunity to get a better shot of the interior of the rotunda, which was designed by the same man that designed the current dome of the U.S. Capitol Building, Thomas U. Walter.  So, that was my visit to Hibernian Hall.  While it didn't seem to be much at first, the building was steeped in history and made for an interesting stop.  The amazing thing is, there are literally hundreds of other buildings with just as much colorful history all over the city.

I stopped for dinner at a local restaurant called Hank's Seafood after leaving Hibernian Hall, and had a couple of South Carolinian "lowcountry" specialties.  She-crab soup and shrimp over grits.  Both were excellent and I've started to a country as well-connected as ours, it seems strange that cuisines can be so localized.  Certain dishes can only be found in specific little corners of our massive country.  I suppose that is what keeps them unique.  Plus, it's those little cultural diversities that were one of the primary reasons I wanted to take this trip in the first place, so I'm glad that they do still exist.  
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mom- on

Mark, this was very interesting! I really enjoyed the part about you mingling with the locals telling your story and hearing theirs. What a memory!!

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