Brookgreen features the nation’s largest outdoor sculpture collection and boat tours through long-abandoned rice fields.
Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site now preserves and presents the spot on the Ashley River where a group of English planters, their slaves and indentured servants landed after sailing from Barbados in 1670. There they were greeted by members of the Kiawah tribe and established what would become a major American port and the birthplace of the plantation system of the American South.
The park is a great place to begin the exploration of Charleston, and features a robust museum with interactive features like a “digital dig” that complement the real, ongoing digs and faithfully replicated palisade walls, regularly fired cannons, period housing and experimental crop garden on site. There’s also a full-sized replica sailing ship berthed on site.
Living history demonstrations are a major attraction at the park, as at many locations across the state. There’s also Animal Forest, home to creatures of a kind the original settlers would have encountered, including mountain lions, bears, otters and buffalo.
Meanwhile, more of America’s colonial and pre-Civil War history then can be discovered in and around the picturesque town known as the Holy City for its numerous historic churches. Charleston boasts many firsts and lasts — the country’s first museum, for instance, and the state’s last known slave market, all preserved and interpreted and put into context. Carriage rides with knowledgeable guides are a great way to get started in the journey.
Historic neighborhoods, including the colorful homes of Rainbow Row and the Battery on Charleston Harbor, also are highlights here. — so is a trip by ferry out to Fort Sumter, which absorbed the first shots of the Civil War in 1861.
Nearby are some of the nation’s best-known old plantations still open for visitation. Dating back 300 years, these include Boone Hall on the Cooper River. It is home to one of the most photographed alley of live oaks in the country and a unique set of brick slave. Up the Ashley River are Magnolia Plantation, Middleton Place and Drayton Hall, built by signers of the Constitution and home to the nation’s first landscaped gardens.
American history can be explored along the rest of South Carolina’s coast. South of Charleston is Beaufort, the state’s second-oldest city. A charming waterfront town with its own historic neighborhoods, it’s also the mainland access to the Gullah communities that still carry on memories of the culture, language and traditions their African ancestors first brought here as slaves and then combined with their new lives in America.
A center of Gullah culture is the Penn Center on St. Helena Island, better known as the first school for freed slaves in the South, and later as a retreat for civil rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
A bit further down the road is Hunting Island State Park, home to a 165-foot lighthouse that’s the only publicly accessible historic lighthouse in the state. It has quite a view from the top.
To the north of Charleston, on the way toward Myrtle Beach, are notable stops such as Hampton Plantation State Historic Site, a former rice plantation and colonial mansion where President George Washington spent the night in his 1791 tour of the South. Next is the town of Georgetown, a longtime river port village whose historic neighborhoods are reminiscent of its larger neighbor to the south, Charleston.
A unique slice of American history can then be enjoyed at nearby Brookgreen Gardens and adjacent Huntington Beach State Park. Brookgreen features the nation’s largest outdoor sculpture collection and boat tours through long-abandoned rice fields. Huntington Beach includes Atalaya, the unique Moorish castle-style home built by Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington, philanthropist and sculptor and creators of Brookgreen, during the Great Depression.
History also lives on in inland South Carolina. The Revolutionary War, for instance, was waged across the state and preserved national, state and local battlefields still exist at Cowpens, Ninety Six, Kings Mountain, Camden and Musgrove Mill near Clinton. Each of these has museums, historic homes and interpreted battlefield sites to explore.
More recently, South Carolina also was heavily involved in the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Great Depression program that put local men to work across the country working on projects that in the Palmetto State included the creation of 17 state parks that are still heavily used to this day.
Much of that work remains to be admired and enjoyed, including the cabins and restored lodge at Table Rock in the Blue Ridge Mountains, coquina structures such as bathhouses at Poinsett, Myrtle Beach and Edisto Beach and terraces and stonework at Lake Greenwood State Recreation Area, which now also boasts a museum that describes the lives and accomplishments of the CCC.
The state’s rich agricultural heritage is on display at such sites as the South Carolina Cotton Museum in Bishopville, the South Carolina Tobacco Museum in Mullins and the Elloree Heritage Museum in the town of that name in Santee Cooper Country. The South Carolina National Heritage Corridor also maintains robust museums that describe life from farm to factory in Blackville and Edgefield.
A statewide look at South Carolina’s history is available in exhibit form at the S.C. State Museum in Columbia, while strong regional and local museums include the new Upcountry History Museum in Greenville and the Oconee Heritage Center in Walhalla. And if you make it to Walhalla, don’t miss nearby Stumphouse Tunnel, on the mountain of the same name. There, pre-Civil War workers went more than 1,500 feet into the side of the mountain, intending to build a railroad tunnel. They abandoned that effort, but it’s still there to be explored and enjoyed, along with nearby Issaqueena Falls, one of many waterfalls in the state with Native American legends attached to them.
Speaking of Native American heritage, one of the oldest sites easily accessed in the state is a shell midden, a mound of abandoned oyster shells believed to date as much as 4,000 years old, at Edisto Beach State Park.
And among the newest ... the Zentrum at the BMW North American manufacturing plant in Greer, right on I-85 between Greenville and Spartanburg. It houses classic models from that legendary German automaker, as well as exhibits on its work to build the cars of the future, including there at its huge South Carolina operation.