Fossils, Phosphate, and Freedmen: Charleston’s Post Civil War Mining Boom
Through Feb. 17, 2020
$12/adult, $10/youth, $5/child
Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Sundays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
360 Meeting St.
Untapped fortunes once littered the fields and streams of Charleston. For a time, anyone who happened upon these unattractive stones would quite literally toss them aside, not knowing that the region’s phosphate deposits would drive local industry as it recovered from the Civil War and play a role in how Charleston’s newly freed citizens would position themselves in society.
Useful in producing new and more effective fertilizers, Charleston’s phosphate supply gained widespread notoriety. In 1869, one South Carolina newspaper wrote, “That singular deposit, known as the Charleston Phosphate Bed, possesses an interest to the geologist and the scientific inquirer which few others can claim, there being nothing exactly like it, so far as known, anywhere else on the globe.”
In 1874, Charles Flint, secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture, would continue spreading the praises of Charleston’s phosphate supplies. In a lecture to fellow board members, Flint stated that from an agricultural and commercial point of view, he considered the discovery of Charleston’s phosphates to be “among the most grand, and important discoveries of the age.” At that time, Charleston’s phosphate beds were believed to stretch 70 miles long and 50 miles wide — roughly half the size of the state of Massachusetts, Flint noted. It was suspected that an estimated 1.6 billion tons of phosphate could be mined from the Charleston area.
By the next decade, ads from the Ashley Phosphate Company, Wando Phosphate Company, Ashepoo Phosphate Company, and Charleston Phosphate Company filled papers, boasting of the area’s hearty supply of high grade fertilizers. Now the story and science behind this exciting time in local history will be put on full display at the Charleston Museum in a new exhibit titled Fossils, Phosphate, and Freedmen: Charleston’s Post Civil War Mining Boom.
“The exhibit is designed to showcase the intermingling of science and history,” says the museum’s curator of Natural History, Matthew Gibson. “When people think about visiting a museum — an art museum, history museum, or science museum for instance — they typically think of those topics as kind of singular, whereas this exhibit is meant to intertwine those two topics.”
Now open, the exhibit will showcase this lesser known part of Charleston’s history, but also delve into the science behind what made the area’s phosphate supply so significant. This is in part thanks to additional research conducted by University of Vermont geology professor John Hughes, whose students at the time were studying the basic chemistry of phosphates and their various uses. Gibson on the other hand concentrated much of his research on the “gentlemen scientists” of the 1800s who were still trying to discover what, if any, use phosphate might have.
“A lot of the plantation owners, for example, would come across these while they were farming and toss them aside as waste rock,” Gibson explains. “But because paleontologists were taking note of these phosphate nodules and remembering them later on as a potential resource and chemically testing them, they were able to come back and find a very important resource for the region post Civil War.”
Of particular note is the major role that the Charleston Museum played in the mining of phosphate leading up to the period. According to Gibson, records indicate that one of the first people to identify phosphate nodules as a potential marketable resource was Francis Holmes, paleontologist and curator of the Charleston Museum.
Through Holmes’ work studying the Lowcountry’s geological and paleontological features, he would eventually send a few samples of local phosphate nodules to Georgia for testing. Thanks to his efforts, Charleston’s rich phosphate supply was proven to be a valuable resource for the area.
As scientific understanding eventually caught up with the benefit of this local resource, Charleston became the largest manufacturer of phosphate in the world. Now, Gibson says, most phosphates we use come from other countries. Pretty much anything that utilizes a screen uses phosphate. This means phones, computers, and any other modern device that occupies your attention. But beyond the modern-day importance of phosphate trade is the significant impact that Charleston’s mining boom had on the lives of the area’s newly freed people after the end of the Civil War.
“Rice plantations and the rice culture had pretty much died at that point. You had free people now available as hireable labor, so they were determining how that would work in an area where that had never been a feature before,” says Gibson. “It actually gave a lot of the freed people more negotiating rights than they would have previously had, but still obviously not anywhere near where they needed to be. There were a lot of growing pains from trying to negotiate how the labor force would work, obviously not returning to how they had previously done it with gang labor and things like that.”