Expanding a treasure

At 7,000 acres, the Ashley River National Register Historic District outside Charleston already ranks as one of the state's largest, showcasing nationally important sites such as Drayton Hall and the gardens at Middleton Place.

But historians just recently learned that the district only tells part of the story of the area's plantation life.

Soon, the National Parks Service is expected to triple the district's size to 23,624 acres, mostly by adding forested lands west of Ashley River Road.

The expansion was set in motion five years ago by the Historic Charleston Foundation, which was concerned about nearby development plans, particularly on the Watson Hill tract near the original district.

Katherine Saunders, the foundation's associate director of preservation, says the expanded district won't cover Watson Hill - nor will it have much effect on property rights - but it will help landowners, planners and others appreciate the area's historic features.

Saunders says much of the work supporting the Ashley River plantations occurred on the western side of S.C. Highway 61, also known as Ashley River Road.

"The road was never a dividing line," she says. "We've pulled in the stories of the everyday people who made that plantation system work and flourish. That work really underpinned the showplaces."

Lissa Felzer, a lead researcher who walked more of the enlarged district than anyone else, says its most visible historic features stem from rice cultivation and phosphate mining.

"Those are the two layers that sort of withstood time," she says.

But Felzer says the district's full significance won't be known until it's explored more archaeologically. "For me to tell you what's the most significant site in the district would be impossible because we can't see what's under the ground," she says.

What little archaeology was done proved tantalizing: It uncovered what could be a chimney on Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper's frontier outpost (a find I wrote about here a year ago). The site is believed to date between 1670 and 1683, making its bricks possibly the oldest surviving ones from the English colony.

Tracy Power of the S.C. Department of Archives and History says the Ashley River expansion is notable because researchers, assisted by Brockington and Associates of Mount Pleasant, used new technology to overlay historic maps with modern ones, while GIS and satellite technology aided the hunt for specific features in the landscape.

"They also found things on the ground they weren't expecting," he says. "It really is an exciting nomination."

When added to the National Register, the expanded Ashley River district would be South Carolina's second largest, behind only the 30,020-acre Cooper River Historic District created a decade ago. The National Park Service is expected to review the nomination this spring, and approval is all but assured.

So, preservationists are feeling much better about the future of the Ashley River these days - and not just because MeadWestvaco repurchased the Watson Hill tract, easing development threats there.

The enlarged district will enrich the debate about what should, and should not, be built there in years to come.

"It brings more attention and more understanding as to why this area is important," Saunders says. "You can't protect something if you don't know it's there."

Regarding last week's column on the grave of Thomas Bee, it turns out he has many descendents, both direct and indirect, in the area. They note that while Bee had both a son and grandson named Barnard Bee, it was his grandson who was killed in the Civil War and that Bee hosted George Washington, not at Woodstock Plantation, but at his plantation on the Edisto River.

Robert Behre may be reached at 937-5771 or by fax at 937-5579. His e-mail address is rbehre@postandcourier.com, and his mailing address is 134 Columbus St., Charleston, SC 29403.