‘Value added’ Colonial Dorchester in Summerville’s annexation sights

Colonial Dorchester Historic Park is comprised of about 325 acres on both sides of the Ashley River.

SUMMERVILLE — The town might be about to annex the nearly three-century-old Colonial Dorchester.

Mayor Bill Collins is working with S.C. Parks and Recreation officials to bring the state historic site into the town — a move aimed at enhancing the tourism value of both.

But it’s the value added to this deal that makes it so intriguing: It could restore Summerville’s annexing presence across the Ashley River on the development-ripe Ashley River Road.

A little-realized aspect of the 325-acre Colonial Dorchester property is that most of it lies across the Ashley River from the currently developed park off Dorchester Road.

That not-yet-opened part of the park runs all the way to the Ashley River Road, across the road from Watson Hill.

Toehold Eight years ago, a massive development proposed on more than 7,000 timberland acres at Watson Hill touched off a battle to preserve the rural plantation environs along Ashley River Road.

In a last-ditch effort to stop North Charleston from annexing Watson Hill to foster the development, Summerville annexed an intervening property, one that North Charleston also annexed. The property would give the prevailing municipality a boundary line to block off, or get to, Watson Hill.

The annexation also would have given Summerville its first toehold across the river. The town and city sued each other and North Charleston came away with the disputed property.

‘Lost town’ Colonial Dorchester might be the most significant, overlooked bit of history in the legacy of the Lowcountry. Along with Childsbury in Berkeley County and Willtown in Charleston County, the site is one of the 1600s “lost towns,” the beginning of inland settlement of the people who became the Lowcountry.

It’s the only one of the three that still holds structures from a town much bigger than many people realize: The grid of its streets and houses stretches from the Ashley River bank to today’s Dorchester Road nearly a half-mile away.

The remains of the brick bell tower and the walls of the riverbank tabby fort go back to the early 1700s.

‘Ghost structure’ Annexing the historic site would open up opportunities and money for both it and the town’s efforts to attract more tourists Collins said.

The collaboration could bring in everything from more volunteers and labor to accommodations-tax revenue to improve the site. Colonial Dorchester has been poised for years to showcase itself, but was not funded to the level of other, higher-profile state sites.

Immediate goals include improving trails, opening more excavations and erecting “ghost structure” frames of each building being excavated.

“It’s one of the best archaeological spots we have in the state. Annexation has a lot of upside potential. Summerville residents have embraced the site and supported it. This gives more pride and sense of ownership,” said Duane Parrish, Parks, Recreation and Tourism director.

“It will help promote the potential of all that is out here, help people understand how significant this site is,” said Ashley Chapman, the site manager.

The trails of Colonial Dorchester make a natural destination for the town’s Sawmill Branch biking/hiking trail nearby, Collins said.

The town also gets the unusual prestige of having a historic and archaeological trove in its limits, the remains of the village that led to the town’s founding.

The St. George Church bell tower is one of the oldest standing structures in the Lowcountry.

‘A real asset’ Collins frankly concedes that bringing in Colonial Dorchester also is to the town’s long-term advantage because it would extend the boundary line to the potential growth area of southern Dorchester County, a source of revenue.

“We don’t have a lot of undeveloped land in the town (now),” he said. “I think that’s something that would be of interest. I think it will take some time,” he said.

“I’m all for it for both reasons,” said Town Councilman Walter Bailey, who campaigned partly on the town seeking to annex more land.

“It’s a real asset. It’s probably the most historic structure in the state.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or on Twitter at @bopete.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.