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The busy commuter corridor on the southern tip of the town is a far cry from the semi-remote, 900 pine acres where Westvaco Development Corp. in 1968 launched one of the first planned communities in suburban Charleston.
Developing a complete package of homes, schools, churches, businesses and shopping was a new notion. So were the WDC covenants, restrictions, setbacks and green space. Upscale Oakbrook, and the more fully realized Crowfield planned unit development in Goose Creek, became benchmarks. "They were well ahead of their time." Said Colin Campbell, past president of the Charleston trident Home Builders Association. Leftover wetlands became trails, a boat landing and gifts the town and Dorchester County. They make up much of the green space that maintains the woodsy ambiance of the place.


Oakbrook was the vision of a milk carton maker, a civil engineer, a cabinet maker and a computer simulation planner among a number of other people, none of whom was a developer. In 1964, Interstate 26 opened a bedroom door into Summerville for Charleston and military base commuters. Subdivision building began in the Dorchester-Trolley roads area just south of Summerville toward the Ashley River, on former timberland sold by Westvaco, a timber company. With an eye on selling prices of those homes. Westvaco began thinking real estate. It formed WDC, started Briarwood subdivision at what would become one end of Oakbrook, and Ashborough subdivision down along the river at what would become the other end. Nobody in the company had any real experience, said Kurt Wassen, retired WDC president. Wassen had been managing milk carton manufacturing in Virginia.
Jerry Spearman, former vice president and general manager of real estate and development, was a civil engineer when hired in 1973. The operation started small, building maybe half a dozen homes per year. The problem was the opposite of development - WDC wasn't building to accommodate demand, it was building because it had land to sell. It had to create demand. So Oakbrook was born. Operating at arm's length because of tax and trust laws, WDC bought from Westvaco 700 acres comprising much of the land between the two subdivisions already under way.
WDC managers toured cutting-edge planned communities in California and Texas. They landscaped to emphasize natural features - a natural for a bunch of forestry people who liked trees, Wassen said. They set aside lots not only for homes but for pools, businesses, churches, schools and a hiker-biker trail. They thought it through completely enough to move Trolley Road back from a five-points intersection with Dorchester Road and create a shopping center there in the heart of the place. Then they found buyers to develop specific businesses... "We identified certain things we wanted in the community and we went out and got them," said Jim Coggins, a former military computer simulation planner who joined the company as a Realtor in the 1980s. Spearman had heard the name Oakbrook and liked it, thought it suited the live oak trees that dotted the shopping center. In the beginning, WDC's hands were all over the works, controlling setbacks to signs, planning and engineering in-house, scrutinizing builders and providing financing, Spearman said. Their specific restrictions were tighter than Summerville's at the time, Christie said. Ken Willard, a cabinet maker, began building houses in Oakbrook and built offices, the first theater and eventually a good of the commercial area. He called it the elite area. It was elite enough that Coggins recalls going to an upscale Mount Pleasant development in the mid-1980s and being shown a list of covenants and restrictions that were WDC's with the name blacked out.

By the mid 1980s, WDC had begun selling larger tracts to developers and waiving its restrictions, Spearman said.
"It's the difference in whether you want to be a sales person or you want to be more concerned with how it turns out. It has to do with property value. The more controlled the development, the more value it retains," he said.
Willard bought 50 floodplain acres between Ashborough and the Ashley River for $50,000 each. He wouldn't have been able to under Ashborough restrictions, he said. "Any time you start selling off land in blocks for somebody else to develop you lose control over it." Wassen said. "You normally don't put restrictions on an undeveloped block of land. It was up to him to put restrictions on it." The commercial part of Oakbrook became overbuilt, Willard said. Three supermarkets closed one by one. Residential properties still sold, but business slowed. The company had begun Crowfield, a more compact, cohesive planned community that used what they learned in Oakbrook. It was advertised as "a city of its own." Oakbrook languished until 1990s prosperity brought a new boom, spurred almost accidentally by Summerville Medical Center. WDC wanted a medical office developed along side a rest home on Midland Parkway. In 1989 it got the hospital, which became "the anchor and the stabilizing force Oakbrook needed." Said town planner Christie. The parkway became a medical office campus, around which more than 1,000 homes are now built or being built - including 400 on land that WDC's original master plan left as floodplain wetlands. Coggins said he's disappointed Oakbrook covenants weren't enforced in commercial areas.
Willard said buffers between commercial and residential areas were compromised, and the commercial boom today smacks of the overbuilding in the 1980s.
Today, Summerville has tightened zoning, tougher enforcement and a newly created Commercial Design and Review Board using the same sort of standards WDC created for Oakbrook. WDC, described by a Westvaco spokesman as set up to do a limited number of projects, expects to be out of the real estate business. Willard sold out much of his holdings after the mid-1980s slowdown. He kept building upscale homes and has seen the impact Oakbrook had. "I used to think Westvaco was pretty tight on their restrictions, but now I'm developing in Coosaw Creek they're stricter," he said. Coggins retired as a vice president and still lives in Oakbrook. "Obviously it created a modern development, where someone could come into a protected environment, and the idea was to create it across a spectrum" of affordability, he said (sic). "It's an idea that obviously caught on in the Charleston community."

Early History - "Contact to Around 1900"

It is generally accepted that many native tribes were utilizing the coastal and river resources of the Lowcountry at the time of contact with Europeans. And today a great variety of pottery fragments and arrowheads - from many periods, are still found in and around Summerville. When the first settlers arrived at the headwaters of the Ashley River, the natives they found in the area were likely the Kussos. It is my understanding that their village was across the river. It is now protected as an undeveloped part of the Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site.

King Charles II granted eight English noblemen large tracts of land in the Carolina colony in 1663, setting up a system of trade favorable to his Monarchy. Among the original eight Lords Proprietors of Carolina the English noblemen granted the province of Carolina from King Charles II, Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury may have taken the most interest in the project. He even considered moving here and obtained a deed from the Cussoe [Kusso] Indians in 1675 for property about 10 miles from Charles Town. A brick foundation recently excavated near the Ashley River could be built of the oldest bricks in South Carolina, possibly dating as early as 1674; just four years after the British founded the colony. Most expect it's connected to a trading outpost owned by Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper.

The neck of land between Dorchester Creek and the Ashley River bore the name of Booshoo in records as early as 1682. The English settlers may or may not have learned the place name "Booshoo" from the Kusso Indians. The colonial town of Dorchester was laid out at the junction of the Ashley River and the Bossua or Bo-shoo-ee Creek. Dorchester Creek (now commonly known as the Sawmill Creek or the Sawmill Branch Canal) flows through Summerville generally southward to the Ashley River. The colonial village of Dorchester was likely the first inland village in the region.

Dorchester (and the area around the Upper Ashley River) has a long English history and notably we find records and personal accounts describing relations with local natives, early colonial settlement by the English, the Yeamassee Indian War, the French and Indian War, the American Revolution and the American Civil War. Troops were trained and quartered around Dorchester (and further up river) and the fortified powder magazine at Dorchester was the inland store of lead and powder for Charleston in colonial times.

Ship stores (pine tar, pine pitch and turpentine), timber and livestock were exports from the area and the settlers traded with the natives for deer hides. The Ashley River would become the home of some of the wealthiest landowners in the region when the popular and profitable "Carolina Gold Rice" was grown in flooded fields constructed along the riverside. After the American Civil War many of the extensive plantations were abandoned and would be strip-mined for phosphate rock to be made into fertilizer. Charleston would become the largest producer of fertilizer in the world until around 1900.

Henry Augustus Middleton Smith (H. A. M. Smith) writes of the area history and families just after 1900. H. A. M. Smith is known to have owned extensive tracts of land in the Summerville area at this time including the nearby site of the abandoned village of colonial Dorchester. Companies in the timber industry remain the largest landowners in South Carolina, buying abandoned plantations and land stripped of its mineral resources by the mining companies. Virginia Pulp and Paper would buy much of the area and plant longleaf pines for lumber, utility poles, and to produce paper. They would buy the site of the village of Dorchester at this time.

H. A. M. Smith describes the area, property owners (some historically well known including Blake, Axtell, Izard and Gibbes) and what they called their land, homes and plantations. We are most interested in Cedar Grove Plantation, its owners, the adjoining lands and the nearby village of Dorchester, and properties up present day Trolley and Ladson Roads. Smith describes Bakers, Cedar Grove, Tranquil Hill and Eagle's - as well as subdivisions of these properties. He also lists the subsequent owners and names of these lands as they changed over time.

In his writings Smith describes the riverside that we now think of as the King's Grant subdivision. "The site of the Oak Forest settlement is one of the finest, if not naturally the finest, on the river. It has for near a mile a bluff sheer to the river, without intervening marsh land. The old grounds bear evidence of taste and much labor and the avenue of live oaks are as handsome as anything in the low country."

History of the Ashley River Corridor

From its headwaters in the cypress swamps of lower Dorchester County to its confluence with the Cooper River in Charleston Harbor, the Ashley River runs for less than 25 miles. Historians have frequently observed that this physical characteristic of the river is in inverse proportion to its historical importance, as the district through which the Ashley River runs is closely associated with the history of Charleston and with the foundation of the Carolina colony in 1670. Indeed, it was along the banks of the lower Ashley River that the initial settlement of the Carolina Colony was located beginning in 1670. Upriver from this settlement (called Albemarle Point), was Ashley Barony, the 12,000 acre land grant on the upper Ashley River that was formally made to Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury, in 1675 by the Lords Proprietors. From this location and others established along both banks of the river, early settlers pursued the raising of livestock and a flourishing deerskin trade with local Native American tribes. They also worked to convert natural materials into the key commodities and naval stores that secured the colony's economic future. Early town sites, such as the Town of Dorchester, were laid out along the frontier. The town, now Colonial Dorchester State Park, was settled by a group of Congregationalists from Massachusetts in 1697 and it flourished until the 1750s. Frontier settlements like Dorchester and early Native American footpaths, which later became roads such as the Ashley River Road, created a network that helped lay the foundation for the new colony.
The political and religious foundations of the colony were laid in 1706 with the establishment of the Church Act that established the Church of England as the official church for the province. Saint Andrew's Parish was one of 10 parishes created by the act. Construction of the church now known as Old St. Andrew's Church, located on the Ashley River Road at Church Creek, began that same year, making it the oldest surviving church in South Carolina. The original rectangular church was enlarged in 1723, giving it its present cruciform shape. Old St. Andrew's Church is one of the only colonial parish churches to remain in active use and is listed individually on the National Register of Historic Places. For generations, Old St. Andrew's Church was the church of the Ashley River's plantation elite. Their rice plantations defined the district's material and social culture. Proximity to Charleston and the ability to reach the port city by either water or road advanced the district as a desirable location for properties that evolved from modest residences into fashionable and architecturally sophisticated country seats for the colony's emerging agricultural aristocracy.
Initially, it was the water access and the demand for riverfront that resulted in a pattern of linear tracts running inland from the banks of the Ashley River. This historic pattern of development still survives in much of the district today. Lands along the river were reserved more for pleasure and display than agricultural productivity due to their sandy soils and high marl content. These properties typically served as administrative centers for the planter elites that had vast landholdings throughout the southern colonies. Some of the extant plantations that were positioned along the southern bank of the Ashley River are Drayton Hall, Magnolia Plantation and Middleton Place. These plantations and others featured prominent structures and extensively landscaped gardens along the river while their "working areas, "including plantation rice fields, large slave settlements, agricultural areas, and later mining operations were usually positioned further inland. These inland areas of the district ran across savannas and the freshwater marshes of Rantowles Creek, and provided the essential economic support for the showplaces along the river.
The mixture of wet and dry lands in this inland portion of the Ashley River district facilitated the colonists' exhaustive pursuit to identify and establish staple crops that could sustain the long term economic viability of the colony. Indigo was a major crop for the colonists with successful production beginning in the 1740s. A bounty or financial incentive was placed on indigo by the British Parliament shortly thereafter but it ceased to be grown on any large scale in the area after the American Revolution. However, for a while, the profits made from the processing of the indigo plant for its rich blue dye were second only to rice. By 1700, the cultivation of rice was the most significant agricultural activity in the region and the wealth it ultimately created was staggering. Largely because of the success of rice, large tracts of land were purchased in the Ashley River region, extensive plantation complexes were built and huge investments in human labor were made. The inland savannas and swamps of the district provided the reliable source of fresh water necessary for rice crop cultivation long before the elaborate tidal irrigation systems were engineered. Slave settlements were located in these inland areas, close to the rice fields, as they provided the critical labor force for the successful production of rice. Commercial rice production in the region, once the most lucrative crop in South Carolina, declined sharply after the Civil War. Following the Civil War and its dismantling of the slave based agricultural economy throughout the South, the phosphoric marl that lay beneath the land adjacent to the banks of the Ashley was extensively strip mined for use as chemical fertilizer. This vital industrial endeavor briefly restored many of the plantation based fortunes destroyed by the war. Small African American communities developed from former slave settlements located throughout the district, and former slaves and their descendants supplied the labor force required by the phosphate industry. The local phosphate industry was eventually eclipsed by more profitable sources of the mineral in Florida and Tennessee beginning in the 1890s, but the canals, roads, rail lines and other infrastructure designed for phosphate extraction still cover the landscape. Six Slave descendants likewise supplied the majority of the labor needed for the commercial timber industry that succeeded phosphate mining, and which today remains the most significant agricultural activity in the district. The region embraced the timber industry in the early 20th century as companies sought to convert wood pulp into paper and board lumber. In order to supply their mills, these timber companies purchased thousands of acres of land within the Ashley River area. Today, the largest of the remaining timber tracts in the district is slated to become a series of clustered residential developments with conserved woodlands between. Another crucial economic and cultural development emerged in the district during the 1870s in the form of heritage tourism. By restoring, expanding or recreating the designed landscape features of 18th and 19th century plantations, and through the stabilization, preservation and interpretation of the architectural remains of that period, the area was popularized as a tourism destination. Indeed, the opening of Magnolia Gardens to the public in the 1870s predated the establishment of downtown Charleston's substantial tourism industry. The gardens of Middleton Place were opened to the public in the 1920s. Heritage tourism, which greatly augmented the financial viability of several large historic tracts of land along the south bank of the Ashley River, provided an important incentive to retain land use patterns in the district based on those that had been established in the previous two centuries. Combined with Drayton Hall, which opened to the public as an historic site in the mid-1970s, these plantations now draw hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. Today, the Ashley River Historic District is well known for its historic plantations and gardens along the river. Lesser known but no less valuable, are the large privately owned plantations and lands that contain remnants of old rice fields, dikes, and canals. These features survive alongside the vestiges of former slave settlements, phosphate mining camps and numerous archaeological sites. All attest to the pivotal role the Ashley River Corridor has played in the history and development of Charleston and South Carolina.

The History of the Edisto Water Tunnel or "The Birth of a Modern Water System"

In 1917, after much debate and a vote by the citizens of Charleston, the City of Charleston purchased the Goose Creek Reservoir and pumping station from the Charleston Light and Water Company for $1.3 million. City Council formed the Commissioners of Public Works of the City of Charleston to operate the city’s water system. CPW—now known as Charleston Water System—was born!
The steam pumping station on the banks of the reservoir—originally called Saxon’s Station, was renamed for J. Ross Hanahan, a Charleston businessman who helped negotiate the City’s purchase of the waterworks. Mr. Hanahan was elected to the first Board of Commissioners and served as chairman until 1923. CPW’s first Manager and Engineer, Mr. James E. Gibson, ran the utility until his death in 1947. During his years at CPW, Gibson gained respect for his efficient administration of the fledgling utility, and received national recognition for his engineering work associated with the Edisto Tunnel.

Renewed search for a water supply

Heavy rains washed away part of the Goose Creek dam in July 1916, a calamity that was immediately followed by the drought of 1917-1918. The resulting water shortage forced CPW to look for an immediate and long-term water source to supplement the Goose Creek Reservoir. CPW found temporary relief in the Ashley River at Bacon’s Bridge by building a pump station and three-mile wood-stave pipeline to supply an additional five million gallons per day to the Goose Creek Reservoir during periods of drought. The federal government helped fund this project, as additional water was needed to establish expand the Navy Yard during World War I. But to attract industry and support continued development, Charleston needed an even larger water supply. As luck would have it, the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company was looking to build a plant near Charleston and needed a large supply of fresh water. CPW Manager James Gibson recommended a supply from the Edisto River near Givhan’s Ferry, and the paper company agreed to purchase raw water from the tunnel and provide funding for the project.

It took CPW nine years (1928-1937) to build the 23-mile tunnel—all hand excavated—to deliver water from the Edisto River to the Hanahan Pumping Station. The tunnel cost $1.36 million and provided a gravity supply of 70 mgd to the plant. The Edisto River became CPW’s primary source of water, and continues to provide raw water to the Hanahan Plant today.