The city once called the “North Area” by residents of Charleston has been much affected by its proximity to the more mature “city by the sea.” The irony is that the former service area and suburb, incorporated as recently as 1972 with even its name subordinated to Charleston, was the third largest city in South Carolina in 2000 and the economic and geographic center of the state’s largest metropolitan area.
(Charleston County; 2020 pop. 118,752). A 1997 information guide called North Charleston the “Hub of the Lowcountry.” The claim is both apt and ironic. The city once called the “North Area” by residents of Charleston has been much affected by its proximity to the more mature “city by the sea.” The irony is that the former service area and suburb, incorporated as recently as 1972 with even its name subordinated to Charleston, was the third largest city in South Carolina in 2000 and the economic and geographic center of the state’s largest metropolitan area.
Early settlements of Europeans and Africans in the area that became North Charleston grew rice and indigo for export. However, the shift to tidal rice planting and the loss of the English market for indigo effectively ended production of these staples in the area by 1800. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the vicinity was Charleston’s unincorporated economic appendage, through which ran the State Road and, after 1830, the South Carolina Railroad. The corridor was home to a variety of industrial works and a small resident population of native whites, immigrants, and free blacks who worked in them. Later in the century, the area developed fertilizer mines and processing plants that lined the waterfronts of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers.
Little changed until well into the twentieth century. A United States naval base and shipyard relocated to the north area of Charleston from Beaufort in 1901. After three decades of slow growth, the base mushroomed into a giant facility during World War II. From 1938 to 1943 the civilian workforce ballooned from 1,632 to 26,500 people. North Charleston grew with the navy yard. Land was drained and cleared for new residential subdivisions. When Macalloy Steel and other military-based manufacturers moved in as well, the sky glowed from industrial furnaces.
The naval base and Macalloy closed in the post-cold-war 1990s. But North Charleston was saved from obsolescence by the same force that influenced its earlier history: convenient access to Charleston. North Charleston also experienced its own maturation as a community, particularly through the political consolidation that accompanied its incorporation in 1972 under the leadership of its first mayor, John Bourne, and the steady growth of a broad-based industrial and service economy. Charleston International Airport was built in 1931 in what is now the city limits of North Charleston. The continued existence of Charleston Air Force Base, established in the 1940s, has kept the military presence alive in North Charleston. The state’s largest retail shopping district developed serendipitously along its Rivers Avenue, the old State Road. At the millennium, North Charleston boasted two colleges, a regional hospital, and the primary regional coliseum and convention center. At the same time, the city began to temper its growth-oriented boosterism with efforts to create a more healthful and attractive environment.
Fick, Sarah. City of North Charleston: Historical and Architectural Survey. Charleston, S.C.: Preservation Consultants, 1995.
Fraser, Walter J. Charleston! Charleston! The History of a Southern City. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.