Back in the days of B.D. (before development), my family lived in the country on a plantation near the crossroads town of Huger, pronounced U-gee to some, HUGE-ee in the vernacular. This great metropolis then consisted of two buildings - a post office and the old Johnson's Store.
The original Johnson's Store was an honest-to-goodness, old-fashioned general store and had at least one of everything.
The place had an aroma all its own, a down-home mixture of cured ham and chicken feed mingling with the underlying tang of kerosene and wood smoke. Cluttered and cozy, it was a place where Red Man chewing tobacco was favored and the beer of choice was Pabst Blue Ribbon.
I made sure that any visitors, especially those from far away, had the opportunity to share the Johnson's experience.
One afternoon, I had a friend from England in town. Mr. Johnson, a short, no-nonsense man, was behind the counter and, as usual, chewing on a fat stump of a cigar. When Mr. Johnson picked up on my friend's accent, he inquired as to whether he lived "across the big water."
My friend looked puzzled. "Do you mean the Atlantic Ocean?"
"Hell no, son," Mr. Johnson drawled, gnawing his stogie. "I mean the Cooper River. You from Charleston?"
In his inimitable way, Mr. Johnson had illustrated how many old time country folk felt about the Cooper River. It was "the big water" - that great divide which separated city from country - an expanse signifying far more than merely going from Point A to Point B.
For centuries, the only way to cross the big water was by ferry boat.
The first public ferry to cross the Cooper River was invested to Captain Anthony Mathews in 1700, which is how Mathis Ferry Road came into being. We can thank our Gullah origins for the relaxed spelling of Captain Mathew's name. This ferry was located generally in the same area as the old Remley's Point boat landing just below Hobcaw Point and took people directly into Charles Town.
Before and at the time of the Revolutionary War it became known as "Lempriere's Ferry" for Captain Clement Lempriere, who then had the shipyard at Hobcaw. An advertisement for its sale in 1762 noted that it contained "three hundred and five acres of good provision land, with seven negroes, who are compleat boatmen; also two horses and three passage boats."
The other early ferry was on Daniel Island. Established in 1731, it crossed the Cooper River to the upper part of Charleston Neck. For years it was jokingly known as the "Calais and Dover" ferry after its European counterpart that joined Dover, England and Calais, France. This comparison was apt; the plantations on the East Branch of the Cooper were largely held by French Huguenots while those who lived on the Charleston side up near Goose Creek were English. Statesman Henry Laurens even dubbed the ferry house on the Daniel's Island "Calais Tavern."
While various people had its investiture over the centuries - John Scott and the Lesesne family, for instance - the name most remembered is when it was operated by John Clement in the 1790s and later, his son, William - thus "Clement's Ferry Road" on Daniel Island.
In 1770 Hibben's Ferry was established at the mouth of Shem Creek, joining the growing village area of Mount Pleasant to Charleston. For a time in the 1780s it was referred to as Bennett's Ferry.
In the mid-1800s, it was joined briefly by the Jugnot & Hilliard Ferry established at appropriately named Ferry Street near Alhambra Hall. A newspaper article in 1852, referring to it as the Mount Pleasant and Charleston Ferry Line, noted that the fare was 12 1/2 cents each way and made four runs daily.
In the late 1890s, with the development of the new resort called Isle of Palms, the ferry system received a shot of adrenalin as people flocked to the beach. "From 450 to 500 cars will probably cross on the Cooper river ferry during the day to spend the time at Sullivan's Island, Mount Pleasant or the Isle of Palms," wrote one newspaper article. Likewise, in 1911, the paper wrote "Nothing could stop the inhabitants of Charleston… from going to the Isle of Palms yesterday - not even the fact that the big float or pontoon at the Mount Pleasant end of the ferry had become tired of life and committed suicide some little time before the sun rose. The float decided that it had been a float long enough at about 3 o'clock yesterday morning. Accordingly, it sank with a soft gurgle into the waters of the bay, and at present rests quietly on the mud that girds the shores of beautiful Mount Pleasant."
Perhaps the most memorable of all the ferryboats to cross the Cooper was the Sappho, which made her inaugural run in Charleston on June 28, 1876, as part of the centennial celebration of the Battle of Fort Sullivan.
Although she was touted in newspaper advertisements as a "swift and elegant sidewheel steamer," the Sappho had some rather startling creaks, groans and shudders which delighted locals and scared the daylights out of first time passengers. John Adams Leland of Mount Pleasant, who rode the Sappho to and from school in Charleston daily, wrote of the vessel's "bad habit" of listing at times.
In 1927, the ferry landing was moved to Hog Island (now Patriot's Point). But since the terminal was two miles from the electric trolley line, the paper noted that "it made service hardly worthwhile." With the opening of the first Cooper River bridge in 1929 the ferry service was retired.
(Suzannah Smith Miles is a writer and Lowcountry and Civil War historian.)