New Clemson turbine facility builds on old windmill traditions in the Lowcountry

Artist Charles Fraser painted this watercolor of a windmill on the Ashley River around 1802. It's titled "A View Near Charleston." The Lowcountry's first windmill was built more than 100 years before.

It's fitting that Clemson University chose the Lowcountry for its state-of-the-art wind turbine testing facility. Windmills have been a fixture on the local landscape for more than three centuries.

During their heyday in the 18th and early 19th centuries, at least six windmills have existed here, from Cape Romain to Edisto Island, and they were built to power lumber mills, says author Nic Butler with the Charleston County Library.

There may have been more than twice as many, but Butler has only anecdotal leads on the others at this point.

Traditionally, windmills powered water pumps, grist mills and sugar mills, but Lowcountry windmills were used mainly to cut timber.

"I think that's testament to the importance of the lumber industry in Colonial South Carolina," he says. Not only did the sawmills help build Charleston, but the city also exported timber to Barbados, Jamaica and other tree-poor Caribbean islands.

The earliest windmill likely was built at northeastern James Island around 1695, a site known then as "Windmill Point" and later renamed Fort Johnson.

The most famous one stood off McClellanville in the 1780s.

Built for John Bowman by Jonathan Lucas, who had just arrived here from England and had not yet made a name for himself by building rice mills, the Cape Romain windmill survived until about 1800, when a storm took off its wooden arms.

The windmill powered a sawmill, but it also caused headaches for ship captains trying to reach Charleston.

"Many mariners complained that the mill's brick tower bore too close a resemblance to the Charleston lighthouse, and thus lured them into dangerous shoals at Cape Romain," he says.

By the 1820s, the state set aside money for boards on the windmill's axle so mariners could see it wasn't a lighthouse. About a decade later, the federal government considered converting the windmill into a lighthouse, but its site was too low-lying. Instead, it built the first Cape Romain lighthouse nearby, on what's now known as Lighthouse Island.

Remnants of the windmill's brick structure are still found, while the mill's 16-foot-long metal shaft is on display outside the Village Museum in McClellanville.

The greatest concentration of windmills apparently was along the western edge of Charleston's peninsula, roughly where Beaufain, Calhoun and Cannon streets end at the Ashley River.

Before White Point Garden was a premier city park laden with monuments, it also contained a windmill, but that was gone - Because of fire? A storm? Gentrification? - by 1734, Butler says. A Charles Fraser watercolor depicts an Ashley River windmill in his work, "A View Near Charleston," 1802.

Butler says there would have been even more windmills here except the main crop was rice, and Lucas soon developed a rice mill that could be powered by the tide. Also, there was relatively little wheat and barley grown here, and hurricanes remained a constant threat, literally scattering a very big investment down the drain.

"The earliest windmills in South Carolina probably suffered significant damage in the big hurricanes of 1713 and 1714, and may not have been rebuilt," Butler says. "Post-Revolutionary War windmills built in Charleston and Cape Romain suffered in the hurricanes of 1800 and 1804, but apparently survived."

The real demise of windmills followed the boom of steam-powered sawmills in the 1820s and 1830s.

"As a source of kinetic energy, the wind was just too fickle to compete with steam," Butler says. "We now know that steam power is inefficient, expensive and dirty, but in the 1820s, it was the latest technology, and people ran with it."

More recently, several Lowcountry farmers bought and built mass-produced windmills to pump drinking water, like the one depicted in "The Wizard of Oz," and Butler says at least one of them still survives on Wadmalaw Island.

And then there's the whimsical windmill in James Island's Riverland Terrace neighborhood. Built by World War I veteran John Roessler around 1936, it once could be seen from the Intracoastal Waterway but later was moved to a Plymouth Avenue site.

Of course, all this pales in comparison to the $100 million Clemson University wind turbine drivetrain testing facility dedicated late last year at the former Charleston Naval Base, a project that could mark the eventual return of windmills to the Lowcountry landscape.

Or, as Butler says, "We've come full circle and are re-exploring our clean-energy past."



Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.

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