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South Carolina – James Island History

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The Origin of "Plum Island"

At a recent dinner party, we drifted into one of my favorite topics – the origins of local names. Another guest asked about Plum Island and if the name was some veiled reference to "plumbing" and thus the sewage treatment plant located there. Absolutely not!

To be sure we're all on the same page, Plum Island is today the home to the Charleston Sewage Treatment Plant. It's the all too prominent facility sitting in the marsh on the left as you approach James Island on the James Island Connector. I'm sure that there was a compelling reason for the engineers to locate a treatment plant there, but sitting in beautiful Charleston harbor, it's a little like building your privy on your front porch.

While the sewage treatment plant and the odor is enough to keep most people away, several generations of James Islanders have felt the island was haunted.

Nonetheless, the treatment plant is built on what was historically called Plum Island. The name is derived from the hundreds of wild plum trees that covered the island in the Colonial period. The island was originally much larger, almost 30 acres of high land. While there were a number of owners of the island through the years, there was little cultivation of the island.

Samuel Cromwell was born in Wiltshire, England in 1775. At the age of 25, he booked passage to Charleston, seeking to establish himself in business. He began a career of buying and selling property to advance himself. One of his favorite purchases that he never put back on the market was Plum Island.

He built a plantation on the island and in time began spending more time at Plum Island than his Ansonborough home in Charleston. He planted small tracts of sea island cotton and sweet potatoes on the plantation. After an illness of several months, Samuel Cromwell died on August 24, 1844.

In his will, he left his personal property, furniture, books and bedding wearing apparel to his good friend, James Welsman. His real estate was to be sold and divided among his sister, nieces and nephews. His will did not mention a wife or any children. The will did contain two very unusual instructions regarding his burial and the issue of two favorite slaves.

The mid-19th century was a time of great distress about the fever. Sometimes the afflicted would fall into such a deep coma, they were thought to be dead. Many people feared being buried alive. A New York firm even patented a casket with a pull ring attached to a bell above ground. If you awoke and found yourself buried, you'd simply ring the bell and be rescued (though there was never a case of such a rescue taking place). Samuel Cromwell addressed this fear in simple fashion. The first instruction in his will read, "request my good friend James Welsman, Esquire, to inter my body on the northwest point of the island: in a plain coffin, which he will permit to remain unfastened for the space of three days after which time the coffin may be closed and the grave filled." This strange occurrence may have given rise to some of the stories of the haunting of Plum Island.

After the discovery of the plans for Denmark Vesey's rebellion in 1822, many laws for free blacks changed. Specifically, the government wanted the slaves kept under control and did not want to see an increase in the number of free blacks in Charleston. Formally, it was common for a white slaveholder to award freedom for his most trusted and closest house slaves upon his death. That practice was greatly discouraged after Denmark Vesey. Doing what he could, Samuel Cromwell instructed "my two slaves Louis and Jack shall have the right to choose owners for themselves upon reasonable terms."

After the Civil War, Plum Island attained local fame as a producer of early strawberries. Since it was surrounded by salt water, the island stayed warmer than inland farms, thus favoring fruit production. A severe hurricane in 1893 devastated the farm and eroded away much of the high land.

In 1894, the City of Charleston bought Plum Island at a sheriff's sale for $420. The city located the Charleston Pest House on the island. The Pest House was a site where people with highly contagious diseases were isolated until the disease passed or, more likely, they died. The isolation of Plum Island with no connection to the mainland was perfectly suited for such use. After another hurricane in 1911 further reduced the high land on Plum Island, the quarantine operations were re-located to a site just south of Magnolia Cemetery within the next three years.

Plum Island was sold to Warrick P. Bonsall in 1914. Mr. Bonsall, a Charleston businessman, built a causeway from Plum Island to the Frampton family property on James Island, allowing him to reach his island with greater ease. Mr. Bonsall built a weekend retreat on the island and occasionally would conduct business there on the weekdays. After Mr. Bonsall had built his retreat and landscaped the small island perched across the harbor from Charleston, a member of the Bonsall family described it as "heaven on earth."

In 1965, the City of Charleston, once again, purchased Plum Island, this time from the heirs of Warrick Bonsall for a price of $100,000. The sewage treatment plant was part of a 6 million dollar sewer project undertaken by the city.

This may be more than you ever wanted to know . . . but . . . wastewater in Charleston collects in tunnels beneath the city. It then drops to a tunnel and carrier pipe 75 feet below the bottom of the harbor. This flows to a wet well 122 feet below the surface on Plum Island and is lifted to the treatment plant by 6 pumps. The treated wastewater is then discharged into the harbor.

Standing on Plum Island today, it is doubtful that you'd conjure up memories about wild plums, strawberries and weekend retreats. You'd probably not describe the island as "heaven on earth."


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