At the end of my walking tours in Charleston, I sometimes get asked the question, “Where’s your favorite neighborhood in the historic downtown district?”
Well, guests of my tours know I love the lower end of Church Street near White Point Garden to be sure, but their question usually hints at hidden gems not featured on my tours. There is a lovely neighborhood known as Colonial Lake
just a few minutes walk from the heart of downtown. And, it’s the ideal spot for a stroll, walking your dog, fishing
, relaxing on a bench and soaking up the sun, or catching up with friends. And, funnily enough, this “lake” is really more of a puddle. Well, maybe it’s a little bigger than that as it is technically a tidal pond with wide walkways around the whole of it. The entire area is used as a gathering place or park for locals and perhaps a few tourists who’ve dared to venture out more than two blocks away from Meeting Street.
For many years the lake was commonly known as the Rutledge Street Pond. In fact, some of the older residents there still refer to it as “The Pond.” It got its name of Colonial Lake in 1881, in honor of the Colonial Commons
established in 1768.
Location: 42 Ashley Avenue, Charleston, SC 29401
Area: 10.0 acres
Operated by: The City of Charleston
The lake and its park were part of the Commons established by an Act of the Commons House of Assembly in 1768, setting aside the area forever for public use. The actual lake was created in 1869 when Lynch Street (now named Ashley Avenue) was extended south to Broad Street, enclosing the area now occupied by the lake. The tradition that the lake was developed as a small boat harbor for planters apparently has no foundation in fact. Most likely, it served as a mill pond for a succession of sawmills which operated in the vicinity.
In 1875, a local mill owner, Patrick P. Toale, received a lease for some of the land surrounding the lake. When he tried to purchase the property, local citizens opposed the request and filed a lawsuit to prevent the deal. Judge J.B. Kershaw sided with the opponents, ordering that all remaining property held by the city be retained for the benefit of all Charlestonians and that a commission be created to oversee the property. Hurray!
The park around the lake was developed in the 1880s. The current configuration of a lake within concrete embankments with a wide promenade on all four sides was largely completed by 1885.
“Gala Week” used to be held in the fall of the year, with a fireworks display on the west side of the Pond, which was then an underdeveloped area. Spectators would fill the park and would even crowd onto boats in the lake to watch. Boats were a popular feature of Colonial Lake, and the city even began requiring licenses for them to maintain order on the pond in 1910. Starting that same year, a series of boat and “tub” races were staged in the lake for local boys with money awarded to the winners. For a time, the lake was closed off from the Ashley River with a wire screen and stocked with fish for recreational fishing.
Improvements to the park have been consistent. In 1902, the promenade was improved with a stone pavement. Other improvements were considered, but the lack of security at the site caused officials to question the notion. A dedicated police officer was assigned in 1904 to watch over the site. In 1910, palmetto trees were planted along Ashley Avenue and more extensive landscaping was carried out, but officials again noted that vandalism by children in the area was the problem. In 1911, the commissioners who oversaw Colonial Lake announced that new benches would be installed and forty water oaks would be planted. In 1938, the leader of a local club proposed installing a man-made island in the center of the lake, stocking the lake with salt water fish, and promoting it as a destination for visitors; the plan was opposed by residents and did not take place. In 1972, fountains were installed to aerate the lake, but neighbors complained about the salt water over spray, and the fountains often idled due to low water and rusted parts; in 1977, they were removed.
A private group known as the Parks Conservancy announced plans to improve Colonial Lake in 2008. Its plans would have narrowed adjacent Rutledge Avenue by nine feet (to the same width as nearby streets) and installed a more formal landscape around the lake. Plans were completed with some modifications, and an expected January 2015 start date for the four million dollar project was set. Work was completed in 2016.
If you plan to visit Charleston, definitely carve out a few hours and take a stroll down to Colonial Lake. It’s one of my favorite things to do in Charleston, that costs absolutely nothing.
To book one of my small-group walking tours, please visit my Tours page
to reserve directly or feel free to call me at 843.806.9915. The best way to experience the beauty of Charleston is on foot at a nice, leisurely pace.