The 2nd Charleston attraction that Wesley said was both essential and easy to miss was its Powder Magazine. Sitting quietly half way down Cumberland street at #79 in old Charles Town, the Powder Magazine stored up to 5 tons of gunpowder. Its continued survival makes it the oldest public building in South Carolina, and it recently celebrated its 300th Anniversary with a notable remodel.
When the Magazine was new, gunpowder was old. The Chinese invented buo yao, or fire drug, in the 9th century to signal and to use for fireworks. They began recording it as gunpowder about 20 years before the Norman invasion of England, and Europeans were using it on battlefields about 250 years later. I learned this in R. Alan Stello Jr.’s entertaining and concise book Arsenal of History, which I bought in the Powder Magazine.
Carolina got its start when King Charles II rewarded 8 English noblemen for their support by giving them land grants. If the colony of Carolina as conceived had hung together, today it would include Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Dallas.
By 1719 gunpowder needed a storage facility in the new walled city of Charles Town. A diorama of it in the Gunpowder Magazine reminded me of a late-medieval European fortress similar to Canada’s Fort Louisbourg. Carolina was invaded in 1706 and Governor Nathaniel Johnson pleaded, “a Magazine for your Stores of Powder Bullett and other warlike tooles Necessary is greatly wanting.”
A combustible combo of charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate (saltpeter), gunpowder was stored in big quantities in the thick-walled Powder Magazine until 1820 without an explosion according to Stello, an engaging host who showed Ruth and me around. In his book about its history, he tells about wars and slave revolts in addition to engaging stories about pirates like Anne Bonny. After earning a notorious reputation, Anne claimed pregnancy to avoid hanging, married well, and lived out her life quietly in South Carolina.
By 1820 the Powder Magazine had served its intended purpose for almost 100 years and was becoming outdated and, I suppose, was considered to be rather dangerous in a residential neighborhood of a growing city. It morphed into a print shop, then, appropriately, a wine cellar, and finally a museum in 1902. It was so well-built that it survived 7 earthquakes including the reportedly 7+ magnitude havoc-producing shake of 1886.
As I toured the Powder Magazine’s yard, I saw several tourists pause, look at its sign, and walk on. They don’t know what they missed! This unassuming attraction is a 5 Compass must if you like history and love Charleston.