Shipbuilding was the first major industry on Shem Creek, beginning in the early 1700s. All manner of boats were constructed, from tall-masted sloops to coastal steam vessels, such as the Planter, which became famous as the Confederate military transport turned over to the Union Navy by its African-American pilot, Robert Smalls.
At the turn of the 20th century, E. O. Hall’s shipyard built racing yachts, like the regatta-winning Nell, and also refitted work vessels for the U.S. Navy. Darby’s Mount Pleasant Boat Building continued this heritage until it closed in 1990, ending three centuries of shipbuilding on the creek.
Ancillary businesses also appeared along the banks. In the 1740s, Peter Villepontoux’s lime kiln helped support the building boom that was underway. In 1795, harnessing the power of the tide, millwright Jonathan Lucas erected the first water-driven combination rice and saw mill on Shem Creek’s eastern shore, and the area became known as “Lucasville.” In the early 1800s, John Hamlin’s Mount Pleasant Bucket Factory manufactured an assortment of wooden buckets and brooms.
During this period, the creek was lined by plantations and provided the major “roadway” for getting the crops they produced to market: indigo in the 1700s; cotton in the 1800s; and produce, such as asparagus, corn, cabbage, and tomatoes, in the 20th century. In 1907, nine farmers used its waters to transport their goods to town—an annual commerce valued at the equivalent of some $6.6 million today.
Shrimping was introduced in the 1930s with Captain William C. Magwood’s trawler, Skipper. From then onward, Shem Creek was the home port for Charleston’s fleet of shrimp boats and commercial fishing vessels. For decades, the fisheries were a mainstay of the town’s economy. Dozens of working boats lined both sides of the creek—so many, they had to dock three or four abreast. Yet the scenic trawlers also unwittingly brought a new commerce to the creek: tourism. Restaurants followed, drawing patrons to tables offering enviable creekside views.
Only 20 years ago, there were some 30 resident trawlers. Today, there are less than a dozen, not all in working condition. With ongoing news of the “sinking” of this once great industry, it would appear that shrimping is on its way out. For the shrimpers still working on the creek, these are fighting words.
Creek of Many Names
Through the years, the creek’s name often changed according to ownership. In the 1670s, it became Sullivan’s Creek when Captain Florence O’Sullivan (for whom Sullivan’s Island was named) owned lands on its east side (the Old Village area we know today). In the 1690s, it was Dearsley’s Creek for Captain George Dearsley, who established the first shipbuilding operations there. It was Rowser’s Creek during the ownership of shipwright Richard Rowser, and when Alexander Parris owned Hog Island (now Patriots Point), it became Parris’s Creek. During the Revolutionary War, it was called Lempriere’s Creek for Captain Clement Lempriere, master of the ferry at Haddrell’s Point. For a brief period in the late 1800s, it was called Distillery Creek for the short-lived Farquharson’s Distillery built on the shoreline. Between ownerships, it was always referred to as Shem Creek. The name remains with us today.
To read the next section, “State of the Shrimpers,” click here.