South Carolina’s phosphate industry was the world leader until the 1890s, when bad politics, bad luck, and bad weather brought on a rapid decline.
The South Carolina phosphate mining industry began after the Civil War and dominated world production in the 1880s. Mining began in late 1867 on plantations near Charleston after the gentlemen-scientists Francis S. Holmes and St. Julien Ravenel and the chemists N. A. Pratt and C. U. Shepard discovered that local “stinking stones” contained unusually high amounts of bone phosphate of lime (BPL). Agricultural chemists had recently discovered that high-BPL phosphate rock was ideal for modern fertilizers, and South Carolina had the largest supply in the Southeast. Holmes and Pratt established the Charleston Mining and Manufacturing Company (CMMC) and quickly bought mining rights to several Ashley River plantations. Although CMMC would remain the largest land-mining company, many local firms competed. Entrepreneurs such as C. C. Pinckney, Jr., C. H. Drayton, and Williams Middleton mined phosphate from their own plantations.
In 1870 the legislature began granting river-mining rights to companies that each paid a royalty of one dollar per ton. Many of the early companies proved unprofitable, including a firm founded by the Reconstruction-era politicians Timothy Hurley and Franklin J. Moses, Jr., and the black leaders Robert B. Elliott, Alonzo J. Ransier, and Robert Smalls. As other companies joined the industry, mining spread to the Ashley, Stono, Edisto, Coosaw, Morgan, and Broad Rivers. By the mid-1870s the Coosaw Mining Company emerged as the dominant river miner. Controlled by the Adger family of Charleston, Coosaw mined the state’s best territory and shipped its rock to Europe, where “Carolina river rock” enjoyed an excellent reputation.
Most miners were young black males in their twenties or thirties. Dissatisfied with the work habits of the former slaves, mine owners imported Italians and Germans and tried convict labor but were unsuccessful in displacing the freedmen’s labor monopoly. Freed people in Charleston, Colleton, and Beaufort Counties incorporated mining into a two-day system that included sharecropping, farming their own land, hunting, fishing, and odd jobs. By 1880 more than sixteen hundred men mined the land, which paid well (about $1.75 per day) but was grueling work. Ankle-deep in mud and under the hot sun, freedmen with shovels and picks excavated several feet of overburden before reaching the twelve-inch phosphate layer. Miners pushed the rock in trams toward the river, where others dried the rock in the sun or on burning timber before shipping it to Charleston or beyond. Only in the 1890s would steam shovels and locomotives ease burdens. Although river-mining freedmen initially dove for, or collected, rocks at low tide, most worked on floating dredges or river flats. At least 1,000 miners dredged the rivers in the early 1880s. By 1892 the number of land and river miners had reached 5,242.
Phosphate mining helped to jump-start, and remained an integral part of, the lowcountry fertilizer industry. Ravenel and others established the Wando Fertilizer Company in 1867, while Pratt and Christopher G. Memminger began what became the Etiwan Phosphate Company a year later. CMMC supplied Etiwan with rock, while Wando and Boston-based Pacific Guano Company mined rock and manufactured fertilizers. During the 1870s phosphate-driven fertilizer mills crowded out farmers on the Charleston Neck, and fertilizer production increased rapidly. Hundreds of men were employed in Beaufort and Charleston, and many new firms emerged as demand for fertilizer soared among southern farmers in the 1880s. By the 1890s Charleston had displaced Baltimore as the nation’s largest fertilizer-producing city. From 1869 to the 1940s South Carolina was one of the top five fertilizer-producing states in the nation.
South Carolina’s phosphate industry was the world leader until the 1890s, when bad politics, bad luck, and bad weather brought on a rapid decline. Although the river industry contributed over $2,805,000 to the treasury between 1870 and 1892, Governor Benjamin Tillman–no friend of the Charleston elite–sought greater income from, and control over, the state’s largest producer, the Coosaw Mining Company. The ensuing “war” reached the U.S. Supreme Court and caused Coosaw to suspend mining from 1891 to 1892. While Coosaw was in court, Florida’s higher-BPL river and land rock gained a foothold in the international phosphate market. The 1893 hurricane crippled South Carolina’s river-mining industry, and Florida displaced the Palmetto State as the nation’s top producer the following year. The three blows sent South Carolina’s phosphate industry into a steep decline, with its national market share falling from ninety-five percent in 1889 to twenty-two percent in 1900 and seven percent in 1910. River mining ended in 1909, followed by land mining in 1925. While the economic impact of the industry diminished, its environmental legacy was still felt. A farmer’s 1881 lawsuit concerning Etiwan’s sulfuric acid fumes foreshadowed the phosphate fertilizer industry’s “legacy of contamination.” At the dawning of the twenty-first century, officials of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) described the Charleston Neck as “one of the most concentrated areas of contamination in the nation,” and former fertilizer mill locations emerged as EPA Superfund candidates.
Chazal, Philip E. The Century in Phosphates and Fertilizers: A Sketch of the South Carolina Phosphate Industry. Charleston, S.C.: Lucas-Richardson, 1904.
McKinley, Shepherd W. Stinking Stones and Rocks of Gold: Phosphate, Fertilizer, and Industrialization in Postbellum South Carolina. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014.
Shick, Tom W., and Don H. Doyle. “The South Carolina Phosphate Boom and the Stillbirth of the New South, 1867–1920.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 86 (January 1986): 1–31.