Sandlapper Society

Mud Flats to Mansions

by Ann Thrash

A century ago, Murray Boulevard helped put Charleston on the map. But the iconic thoroughfare never reached its original destination.

Paris has the Champs-Élysées, Washington, D.C. has Pennsylvania Avenue and in New York it’s Fifth Avenue – celebrated thoroughfares all. In Charleston, it’s Murray Boulevard, the much-loved, much-photographed street along Charleston Harbor beside one of the city’s favorite parks and some of its priciest houses. It’s been a century since work began on the city’s own magnificent mile, but what isn’t well known is that Murray Boulevard was just the beginning of what city leaders hoped would be a much larger development: a waterfront road extending around the peninsula from White Point Garden all the way to Hampton Park.

Murray Boulevard today is the focal point for some of the most iconic scenes of the Holy City. The road hugs the tip of the peninsula at White Point Garden, home of historic monuments and sweeping vistas across the harbor to Fort Sumter, and reaches for almost a mile along a seawall studded with multimillion-dollar homes that command priceless views. The route ends somewhat suddenly, dumping cars onto Tradd Street.

When work on the boulevard began in 1909, the area was “basically mud flats, and lots of potential,” says Dr. Nicholas Butler, manager of the Charleston Archive at the Charleston County Public Library. “City councils had tossed around the idea of putting a boulevard there since the 1850s.”

But it wasn’t until the early 1900s that all the ingredients for the project started to come together. In his annual report to the city in 1909, Mayor R. Goodwyn Rhett spoke of what was then called simply “the boulevard” as the dawning of a new era in the city. “For more than half a century, it has been the dream of our people to extend the Battery westward. The dream, in fuller measure than ever pictured, is now becoming a reality,” Rhett stated.

The project on the drawing board called for the boulevard to run from South Battery along the waterfront to the area near Hampton Park. “The rhetoric from the early-20th century promotional materials is really remarkable,” Butler says. “It was described as one of the biggest additions to the city’s landscape in its original inception, something that would really make a splash and put Charleston on the map.”

City officials thought it might be finished in a couple of years, and were no doubt anticipating the tax revenue from the sale of the 191 newly created residential lots, as well as the development of a resort-style hotel to lure Northern tourists on the drive to and from Florida. But it wasn’t until 13 years later, in 1922, that the work was complete. (The Fort Sumter Hotel, now offices and condos, was completed in 1923.)

“The city had contracted with a company to build the seawall and pump in mud and pack it down to make it suitable for building,” Butler explains. “But there were constant complaints about the workmanship and about it settling.” Then World War I began and there was a shortage of labor – and after the war everything was more expensive.

Politics and a change of administrations slowed down the project as well. John P. Grace (for whom the former Grace Memorial Bridge was named) became mayor in 1911. Butler says that in Grace’s eyes, the boulevard was “Rhett’s project,” so he washed his hands of it.

After years of delays, prominent local businessman Andrew Murray managed to light a fire under the project – with his checkbook. Recounts Butler: “Murray finally stepped in and basically said, ‘How much is it going to take to finish this thing?’ ”

Murray had grown up at the Charleston Orphan House but was adopted into the Bennett family, which had prospered in the lumber industry. He became a successful businessman and regularly gave his financial support to civic causes. Between 1916 and 1922, he gave the city nearly $60,000 to build the boulevard, which was later named in his honor. “The total cost of the entire boulevard project between 1909 and 1922 was a little more than $300,000,” Butler reports.

As the Roaring ’20s roared on, the dream of extending the boulevard along the west side of the peninsula persisted. The city hired landscape architects to design “West Bay Boulevard” – the complement to East Bay Street along the Cooper River – but that part of the development never happened. “The dream really died with the beginning of the Great Depression,” says Butler. There currently is indeed a wide boulevard on that side of the peninsula – Lockwood Boulevard. “But it’s just a shadow of what was originally planned,” Butler says.

The next time you visit Charleston, take a drive down East Bay Street and let the road carry you around White Point Garden onto Murray Boulevard. This time, when the road comes to an abrupt end at Tradd Street, you’ll be able to see around the curve and envision what else might have been.  

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Ann Thrash is a writer, editor, and author of the cookbook South Carolina: Always in Season (McClanahan Publishing House, 2002).  She lives in Charleston.

This article is sponsored by Sandlapper Water Tours.


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