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Editorial: How rising seas endanger history — in SC and elsewhere

Castle Pinckney.JPG (copy)

An early morning sunrise from Charleston Harbor looking out at Castle Pinckney. Andrew J. Whitaker/ Staff

When the National Trust for Historic Preservation recently released this year’s list of America’s most endangered historic places, no S.C. site was on it. But a few easily could have been: One of the places listed bears a strong resemblance to an ongoing challenge we face in Charleston Harbor.

The Trust, the nation’s premier preservation nonprofit, listed the Boston Harbor Islands as endangered because of storm surges, “which are intensifying due to climate change and sea level rise.” They’re eroding the islands’ archaeological sites and other historic resources.

“Protecting these sites before their stories are lost requires greater public attention, funding for mitigation efforts and archaeological studies, and strategies to document and protect historic and natural resources from climate-related storm surges,” the listing said.

Just like Boston, Charleston is one of America’s great colonial cities, and it has significant history in its harbor, including Castle Pinckney on Shutes Folly and the manmade island of Fort Sumter. Fortunately, another one of its historic islands, Sullivan’s Island, actually is gaining land, but the Fort Johnson part of James Island already has suffered significant erosion, including much of the land where its fort once stood.

Clearly, Charleston’s historic islands and harbor sites are endangered for much the same reasons as Boston’s are threatened. We call on their caretakers, from the National Park Service to state agencies, local governments and our robust preservation community, to work together to anticipate the resulting challenges and plan for how best to meet them.

Some areas might need archaeological work because of shifting shorelines; others might need fortification.

For instance, the southeastern edge of Shutes Folly Island has eroded over recent decades and has been protected by riprap. The Army Corps of Engineers should consider adding dredging material there, similar to what it plans to do on Crab Bank near Mount Pleasant. That would help birds as well as preserve the fort.

It’s hard to overstate what’s at stake. Many consider Fort Sumter, site of the first shots of the Civil War, the most important historic place in a region full of more than 350 years of history, much of which survives today. And Castle Pinckney, one of the first fortifications built after the United States was formed and began investing in its coastal defenses, long has been an underappreciated and endangered harbor site. (Historians will note that before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, Confederate forces peacefully took control of Castle Pinckney after Union forces abandoned it.)

Charleston has made the endangered list a few times before, particularly for development threats to its Ashley River Historic District, where Charleston’s and Summerville’s (and North Charleston’s) suburbs are encroaching. More recently, in 2016, the former Charleston Naval Base’s historic hospital district made the list because of a threat from a new rail line.

Years ago, the National Trust could brag that no property that made the list had been demolished; sadly, that precedent no longer exists, but its list remains a valuable tool for focusing national attention on some of the nation’s most difficult and urgent preservation challenges.

The annual list also shows that while historic preservation remains largely a local issue — each community must decide for itself what it values and considers worth keeping — the challenges involved often are similar from one place to the next.

In that sense, we can add something else to the usual preservation headwinds of development pressure, economic obsolescence and changing tastes: a warmer planet and rising seas.

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