Will coal tipple get help before it topples?

This building, thought to be part of an old coal tipple operation along the Cooper River, has been ignored for decades. State Rep. Chip Limehouse aims to change that by having Charleston Harbor declared a National Historic Landmark to draw more attention

Robert Behre

The opening of the Ravenel Bridge a few years back has obscured one of the odder historic sites in Charleston Harbor.

Those entering downtown Charleston on the older Cooper River bridges got a better look north at an intriguing railroad trestle jutting into Town Creek.

It's all that's left of a coal tipple, once a formidable industrial site and the only place south of Virginia capable of loading coal onto ships.

The property, which has been owned and essentially ignored by the state for decades, is one of many historic properties in and around Charleston Harbor that state Rep. Chip Limehouse wants to draw more attention to.

"You don't notice it as much on the new bridge because it's not as easy to look down there," Limehouse says. "But everywhere you look in

Charleston Harbor is a point of interest, so my thought is to have the greater Charleston Harbor, have the entire thing, declared a National Historic Landmark."

Many of those sites already are well-known, such as Fort Sumter, Morris Island, Fort Moultrie and Shem Creek.

Others are relatively unknown or neglected, such as Castle Pinckney, shipwreck sites and the coal tipple site just across from the northern tip of Drum Island.

One reason the tipple is so obscure is because to really get a good look at it, you need a boat. Or a friend with a boat.

There are two sites in the marsh between Town Creek and Magnolia Cemetery, and the southernmost site has two remains of masonry buildings and an odd concrete oval jutting out from the water. It resembles a tank foundation.

The northern site has a similar masonry building that's even larger, as well as the remains of a 3,000-foot-long trestle.

The coal tipple opened around 1915 and must have been quite the sight in its day. Its machinery could pick up a coal car and turn it over. The coal would tumble into a chute that led to a conveyer belt that led to a waiting ship.

The process took just a few minutes, and when things were working right, it could load up to 2,000 tons of coal onto a ship per hour.

The Southern Railway Co. owned the tipple but idled it in 1952. Waterfront speculation that it would be reactivated was sunk in 1957 when the company announced it would dismantle much of the tipple, except the pier.

Around this time, the St. Lawrence Seaway project was making it more appealing for Midwestern states to ship through Great Lakes ports instead of East Coast ones.

The railway transferred the coal tipple along with its United Fruit Co. pier farther south to the State Ports Authority in 1957, a gift that was praised at the time as "useful" and "generous."

But about the only thing that has happened at the coal tipple since then has been a mess of fishing and a spectacular April 1976 pier fire that sent billows of black smoke into Charleston's sky for several hours.

The Ports Authority looked at the property briefly as a potential container terminal site, but its enthusiasm waned when it learned that vast expanses of marsh -- more than 2 million cubic yards of mud -- would have to be destroyed.

Also, coal flows the other way these days: The Port of Charleston imported 2.1 million tons of it in 2007, according to a study on the SPA's Web site.

Limehouse hopes to make progress on the harbor historical designation when the Legislature returns in January, and he hopes to shine a spotlight that will increase awareness of the treasures there. He's pursuing a related bill that would draw more public attention to the condition of state-owned historic sites.

"The coal tipple needs help," he says. "It's a piece of our history that can easily be protected and saved if we take action now."

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.