CHARLESTON, one of the finest-looking cities in the US, today spreads way beyond its original confines on the tip of a peninsula at the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper rivers, roughly one hundred miles south of Myrtle Beach and north of Savannah, Georgia. It's a compelling place to visit, its historic district lined with tall, narrow houses of peeling, multicolored stucco, adorned with wooden shutters and ironwork balconies wrought by slaves from Barbados. The Caribbean feel is augmented by palm trees, a tropical climate and easygoing atmosphere, while the town's pretty hidden gardens and leafy patios evoke New Orleans.
Founded in 1670 by a group of English aristocrats as a specifically money-making venture, Charles Towne swiftly boomed as a port serving the rice and cotton plantations. It became the region's dominant town, a commercial and cultural center which right from the start had a mixed population, with immigrants including French, Germans, Jews, Italians and Irish, as well as the English majority. One-third of all the nation's slaves came through Charleston, sold at the market on the riverfront and bringing with them their ironworking and building skills. The town had a sizeable free black community too, and its then unusually urban density allowed an anonymity and racial openness that, although still dominated by slavery, went a lot further than in the rest of the South. Nevertheless there was still slave unrest, culminating in the abortive Veysey slave revolt of 1823, after which the city built the Citadel armory and later the military university to control future uprisings.
The Civil War started on Charleston's very doorstep, at Fort Sumter in the harbor. Fire swept through the city, destroying large chunks, in 1861; more damage was inflicted when it was taken by Union troops in February 1865. The decline of the plantation economy and slump in cotton prices led to an economic crash after the war, made worse by a catastrophic earthquake in 1886. As the upcountry industrialized, capital steadily deserted the city, and it only really recovered when World War II restored its importance as a port and naval base. Since then, a steady program of preservation and restoration – not helped by the devastation of Hurricane Hugo in 1989 – has made tourism Charleston's main focus. Despite the crowds, however, it has kept its atmosphere, while maintaining all the energy and life of a real, working town. The gullah traditions of the sea islands are a tangible presence here, too: "basket ladies" weave their sweetgrass baskets all around the market and near the post office, and many people – black and white – speak the distinctive gullah dialect.