The Rebirth Of Battery Gadsden
A group of Sullivan’s Islanders are determined to preserve the island's history while celebrating the arts and culture here today. By Amy S. Mercer. Photos by Steve Rosamilia.
At first glance Battery Gadsden looks like something out of e Hobbit. A seven foot-tall sloped, grass-covered roof and thick cement walls embrace a rusted A-frame ladder, four doors and four small, square windows. ‑ e doors on the “landside” lead to an officer’s room, battery storage rooms and a guard room. ‑ e seaward-facing wall is completely covered by grass and dirt. Inside, two large rooms, where shells and powder were stored, dominate. It’s a structure that was built to blend in, not stand out.
Step inside and the “real world” disappears; the walls are lined with old black and white photos of women in long dresses posing on the beach that stands a few feet away. Maps of Sullivan’s Island depict the landscape before the Intracoastal Waterway was built and photographs of the trolley bridge that used to connect Sullivan’s to Mount Pleasant reflect the island’s past, preserved for its future.
SAVING THE PAST
Battery Gadsden, an Endicott fort system, was built in 1903 to protect Charleston Harbor and was part of a movement to fortify the coasts of the United States. ‑ e work was done under the direction of the Board of Forti cations headed by the Secretary of War, William Crowninshield Endicott. According to Sullivan’s Island resident Hal Coste, the fort was outdated by the time construction was finished in 1907. “‑ is was 50 years after the Civil War and technology was rapidly being developed,” Coste says. “‑ is was the turn of the century and long-range guns and airplanes had just come into play, so Endicott fort systems were obsolete.” All guns and machinery were removed in 1917 and Battery Gadsden was decommissioned.
Restoration of the building began in the early nineties when long-time resident Mayme Aiken “Make” Macmurphy and colleague Jeri England founded the Gadsden Cultural Center as an o - shoot of the island’s garden club. During their tenure, the old fort provided a space for exhibits, performances and celebrations. It hosted Frogmore Stew fundraisers, Piccolo Spoleto events and guest speakers. Macmurphy died in 2007, and the Battery Gadsden stagnated, eventually falling into disrepair.
Seven years later, a group of islanders decided to breathe new life into the old fort and resurrect the Cultural Center. e current board includes Hal Coste, Adele Deas Tobin, Treasurer Carlson Huey and Secretary Dr. Mike Walsh. In the short time they’ve been together, the board has reinstated the 501(c)3, signed a year lease with the Town of Sullivan’s Island and clarified their mission “To preserve the history and culture of Sullivan’s Island.”
One hundred years after the decommission, visitors are returning to Battery Gadsden to participate in workshops, attend classes and listen to authors and historians such as former Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr., and Roy Williams. When “more comfortable accommodations” are in order, the Center partners with organizations like the National Park Service and the Sunrise Presbyterian Church that donate the use of larger facilities to support the board’s mission of education.
In December 2016, more than 100 guests gathered to hear bestselling author and Isle of Palms resident Mary Alice Monroe read from her book, A Lowcountry Christmas. “ is event was planned as an outdoor event, in the middle of December, after dark; yet, over 100 enthusiasts turned out,” says Susan Middaugh, city councilmember and Battery Gadsden board member. “We all bundled up and enjoyed her talk, the log ‑ res in portable ‑ re pits, holiday lights, and afterwards, hot holiday punch based on the recipe in her book. It was just perfect.”
At events like these, a percentage of sales on the day is donated to the Center, and this is a primary source of fundraising, as all events are free to the public. “We take pride in the fact that we are totally self-funded,” Coste says.
PLANS FOR THE FUTURE
The expansion of the oral history project that began under Macmurphy’s leadership is one of the Center’s top priorities. In 1997 local historian Suzannah Smith Miles took footage of interviews with residents that Macmurphy and England had compiled and produced the celebrated documentary is Island Remembered: An Oral History. “
These residents are aging, and we don’t want to lose their stories,” says board secretary Walsh. He is working with College of Charleston’s Addlestone Library and Lowcountry Digital Library to make sure the interviews meet with best practices as stated by the Oral History Association.
Walsh is actively seeking participants, and anyone who has a long-time association with Sullivan’s Island and would like their memories recorded for posterity is encouraged to reach out to the Center. “
The building could be turned into a real museum space,” Walsh says. “I think it’s really important for people to remember and preserve what this island was about. We need to recognize, appreciate and honor all those years of defending our coast. I would like to see Battery Gadsden be a part of that historic preservation.”