Skip to comments.'Dead House' puzzles researcher
Posted on 02/19/2006 6:41:34 AM PST by Pharmboy
Building's origin, purpose make for quite the mystery
The Quarter House is lost, but its tale of subterfuge might still be nearby, quiet as a tomb.
A local researcher suspects the "Dead House," the mystery outbuilding of the former Charleston Naval Base shipyard complex, might be part of the reason British troops in Charles Town during the Revolutionary War barracked at and staged raids from the Quarter House, a roadhouse tavern and inn six miles from what was then the city.
The Quarter House would have stood a mile or less from the Dead House.
"You have a Loyalist who's not well-liked, knocking heads with all the locals, and at the same time he's taking all their gunpowder," said Chris Ohm, a College of Charleston graduate student who put together a thesis on Revolutionary-era gunpowder magazines.
The Quarter House is among few significant war-era sites of which modern archaeologists have found no trace. It likely stood somewhere around the Navy hospital at Rivers and McMillan avenues in North Charleston.
The Dead House is a buttressed brick-and-mortar outbuilding of an old plantation house that became the Admiral's House, in sight of the Cooper River. No one is sure how old the outbuilding is. It might be, as Ohm suspects, the oldest building in North Charleston.
Jim Augustin, vice president for Noisette Co., the developer working at the old shipyard, has been trying to document the age and use of the Dead House in an effort to preserve it as a historic site near Riverfront Park.
It looks similar to a building at Magnolia Cemetery downstream that was a receiving tomb for bodies while their crypts were prepared, although no cemetery is nearby.
It also looks very much like ammunition magazines of the Revolution, such as the Fort Johnson magazine on James Island and the State Island magazine that stood not far downstream of the Dead House on the Cooper River - both built to secure gunpowder outside Charles Town. But the Dead House doesn't appear on any lists of magazines.
By 1895, the building's history was obscure and little-regarded. It was named "Dead House" in one survey, ignored in another. After base admirals moved into the old plantation house in the 20th century, the outbuilding was used to store lawn mowers. It was declared eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places after extensive historic studies conducted at the base between 1993 and 1995.
"When I got here in 1941, I was told they stored bodies in there," said Palmer Olliff, shipyard historian.
Curiously enough, the man who owned the plantation where the house stood in the volatile years that ignited the Revolution was Sir Edgerton Leigh, the hated "Powder Receiver," the man whose job it was to collect the tariff on gunpowder. He had infuriated Patriots, including wealthy, fiery Henry Laurens, by seizing their ships.
At the time, both sides started secreting away guns and powder for a war everyone thought was coming. Magazines were broken into. At the leaky State Island magazine where soldiers were dying of fever, there were discrepancies in the accounting for the powder.
"It was getting pretty ugly," Ohm said. "My suspicion is Edgerton Leigh built the Dead House to squirrel away powder" - powder available to British troops staging at the Quarter House.
Augustin thinks Ohm might be right.
Ohm is searching for documents to support his thesis. He wants to get carbon tests to date the brick and mortar at the Dead House. He hopes to have it all nailed down within a year.
"It's not a smoking gun," he said about the theory. "But it sure is intriguing, isn't it?"
Reach Bo Petersen at email@example.com or 745-5852.
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Great history story. Having spent a great deal of time working in Charleston, I'm familiar with these places. I used to stay at a hotel on Rivers, not far from the Navy base there. There is a cemetery not far from there upstream on the Cooper that contains very old graves from the 1700's. I had night shift duty once in it, gauging monitoring wells to measure tidal influence on the local groundwater. That was one scary night. Giant moss draped live oaks, pitch black, headstones, and sasquatch sounds coming from all corners of this very large grave yard. I could "feel" the history in that place.
Thanks for posting this as I never knew about the Quarter House.
Your story is a nice connection to this one. Thanks for posting.