When I last left you, I had wanted to tour the Edmonton-Alston house, but it was still 2 hours before it opened its doors for the day. So instead, we made our way over to the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, which was one of the attractions that Jon wanted to visit. This building was built on the waterfront between 1768 and 1771. It was originally built as an Exchange and Customs House, on the site of a former building which served as the community jail (Charleston officials housed the pirates in that former building before they executed Stede Bonnet and others at White Point Garden in December 1718). In 1791, George Washington visited the Exchange while on a week-long visit to Charleston. He addressed the townspeople from the balcony, and they held a ball in the ballroom there in his honor. It’s pretty neat to know you are standing in a room where George Washington dined and danced and gave speeches to the people. Southerners really liked George, as you’ll see in my upcoming post on Savannah, where he also visited during his Presidency. The ballroom upstairs is beautiful and well lit, with the original floors and beautiful windows with original glass panes.
The ballroom also housed an interesting exhibit on George Washington and the time period in which he lived. The exhibit was set up on panels, with all sorts of information. Normally I find that museum exhibits don’t give me enough detail, but this exhibit you could spend hours reading! Kudos to the curators! Unfortunately, we were getting a little hungry, so my body wouldn’t allow for all the reading I wanted to do. I skimmed…
One of the most fascinating parts is the basement of the building, for several reasons. It is in complete contrast to the second floor ballroom. Built of brick with natural arches, it has withstood almost 250 years of hurricanes and the only earthquake to hit the south (in 1886), somewhere between a 6.6 and a 7.3 on the Ritcher Scale. But it is dark, with an uneven brick floor and a palpable dampness. The windows down there are small and barred. The basement also served as the dungeon, and housed both male and female prisoners together, in deplorable conditions. Similar to most prisons of the time period, many prisoners died of disease. Due to the high death rate in the prison, the dungeon is said to be haunted by spirits who make the lights swing back and forth and rattle the chains on the wall. In reality, most prisoners were not chained to the wall though – they were allowed to wander around freely in the dungeon (although many were probably malnourished and sick, so they may not have felt much like walking around). You would also be tripping over dozens of other prisoners if you tried to take a leisurely stroll.
Also, interestingly, during the Revolutionary War, the Americans moved all of their gunpowder from the regular powder magazine elsewhere in Charleston to the Exchange Building, where they bricked it up behind a wall in the dungeon to hide it from the occupying British. Even though the British occupied Charleston for four years during the Revolution, and used the Exchange Building for their own troops and activities during that time, they never found the hidden gunpowder.
The tour of the dungeon is a little cheesy, with the docents dressed in period clothing, but they give some good information about the history of the building. They showed us where excavations in the dungeon revealed where the original wall surrounding Charleston was (did you know Charleston was a walled city?) Other “improvements” to the building include a staircase that was built from the dungeon to the first floor in the 1800s, but was cut off when they were doing the most recent excavation, because it blocked the view of the original town wall. It is kind of a stairway to nowhere, like in the Winchester Mystery House!
After our visit to the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, we asked the docent where to eat. She recommended the Blind Tiger Pub, which had also been recommended by the docent at the Robert Mills House in Columbia, SC, who had lived in Charleston before moving to Columbia. We decided to check it out. The food was fantastic – I had a Greek Gyro with fried okra, and Jon had the spicy blackened Triggerfish with blueberries and mango salsa, and served with fresh fruit. The history of the building was also very neat too. The building was built in 1803, and over the years, it served as a haberdashery, restaurant and pub, and was even a speakeasy during Prohibition. Legend says that parlors opened during Prohibition where patrons could pay an admission fee to see the mythical Blind Tiger, and also get some complimentary cocktails while they were there. Something tells me the authorities might have known what was going on… The Blind Tiger had a neat historic pressed tin ceiling and nice historic detailing. The service was fast and the server friendly, and it would have been nice to be around for their Happy Hour! But no, we still had a lot of sightseeing to do – no time for slacking!