By the 1760's, Charles Town, nearly one hundred years old, was a thriving port in America. At this time South Carolina was still a royal colony and traded a great deal with England. As the shipping industry in Charles Town expanded, it became apparent that a large exchange and customs house would be needed to accommodate these activities.
Construction of the Exchange began in 1767 and was completed in 1771. On the main level was the open arcade trading floor, made of purbeck stone from England. On the second story were city and customs offices and the Great Hall, an elegant assembly room. The ground level cellars were first used for storing goods.
When constructed, the building fronted directly on the water (see detail of a contemporary cityscape below). Over the centuries landfill has been added, pushing the harbor back two blocks to the east. With its striking Palladian architecture, the Exchange dominated the harbor. It became the social, political, and economic hub of the bustling 18th century port--the South's largest. Up to 300 ships could be seen at anchor in the harbor, running the gamut from large sailing vessels, to plantation barges, to Native American canoes. Each merchant ship entering the harbor had to send a representative to the Customs House to pay the required duties. These commercial activities centered on the major exports of the era-- rice and indigo.
Charleston's Exchange Building is considered one of the three most historically significant colonial buildings in the United States. Because of its role in the American Revolution, the Exchange is sometimes called "The Independence Hall of South Carolina."
The Great Hall
In the Great Hall of the Exchange in 1773, citizens of Charles Town met to protest the Tea Act. While tea in Boston was being dumped into the harbor, in Charles Town it was seized, stored in the cellar of the Exchange Building, and later sold to help fund the patriot cause.
In the same hall in 1774, South Carolina's delegates to the Continental Congress were elected, the group responsible for drafting the Declaration of Independence. Charles Town produced four signers of the Declaration of Independence: Arthur Middleton, Thomas Lynch, Jr., Thomas Heyward, Jr., and Edward Rutledge.
On March 28, 1776, South Carolina declared independence from Great Britain from the steps of the Exchange.
After a forty-two day siege in 1780, British troops marched into Charles Town and occupied the city until late 1782. They took over the Exchange and imprisoned leading citizens in the dungeon, requiring an oath of loyalty to the King be signed by patriots in exchange for release. Colonel Isaac Hayne, for violation of parole, spent the final days before his execution in the small room off the Great Hall, now named in his honor.
On May 23, 1788, over 220 men crowded into the Great Hall and with a vote of 149 ayes and 73 noes, made South Carolina the eighth state to ratify the United States Constitution.
In 1791, President George Washington made a tour of the South which included a one-week stay in Charleston. During this week, two banquets, a concert, and a magnificent ball in the Great Hall were held in his honor.
The Great Hall was restored in 1981 to its 1771 appearance by using the original blueprints drawn in 1767 by William Rigby Naylor. As in early times, the Great Hall continues to be a popular location for meetings and social gatherings.
The vaulted ceiling of the dungeon is constructed upon the groin and arch principle of architecture in which two simple arches cross at right angles, joining the semi-supporting column. The center of each arch is one brick thick and over each arch is a six to eight inch layer of sand in which the purbeck stone of the first floor is set.
Entering the Provost Dungeon, one stands at Charles Town's original wall of 1680-1718. By 1701, Charles Town was surrounded by fortified walls for protection against pirates, hostile Native Americans, Spanish invaders, and wild animals. It was the only British walled city in North America.
Archaeological excavations under the dungeon floor have exposed the Half-Moon Battery, a semicircular fortification projecting from the seawall. Behind this wall stood the Court of Guard, holding a Council Chamber and jail. It was in this council building in 1718 that the pirate Stede Bonnet and his crew were held, after capture by Colonel William Rhett, until their hanging at White Point Gardens. Bonnet was just one of the pirates who plundered the harbor of prosperous Charles Town. The most infamous pirate, Blackbeard (Edward Teach), terrorized the harbor, seized ships and kidnapped Samuel Wragg, a member of the Governor's Council. Blackbeard held Wragg and his four year old son for a ransom of medical supplies. Col. Rhett gave chase and pursued Blackbeard north up the Carolina coast. The pirate was finally cornered and killed in the Cape Fear region of North Carolina.
In 1767, the top of the seawall was lowered and the Court of Guard demolished, allowing for the construction of the Exchange upon this site.
During the British occupation of 1780-1782, three signers of the Declaration of Independence (Arthur Middleton, Edward Rutledge, and Thomas Heyward, Jr.) were imprisoned in the Provost Dungeon alongside common criminals. In the dungeon's northeast corner, General William Moultrie secretly stored 10,000 lbs of gunpowder in a secret chamber created by bricking in a false exterior wall. Although the British occupied the building for two and a half years, they never discovered the secret chamber or General Moultrie's gunpowder.
The Exchange Building was rescued from demolition and is owned today by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The DAR membership has furnished two rooms on the main level, the Rebecca Motte Room and the South Carolina State Society NSDAR Room, with artifacts and paintings from South Carolina's colonial era.
Acknowledgements Reproduction of "View of Charleston" by Thomas Leitch courtesy Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Winston-Salem, NC.