Geek Travels: Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon
Recently I had the chance to travel to Charleston, South Carolina and as a massive history buff the fact that this city proudly wore its centuries of heritage proudly meant there was plenty for me to explore. Being a major port city since the Colonial Era, there was plenty for me to indulge in terms of the historical site seeing, but one spot in particular stood out, The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon. Situated in the downtown area where the trading hub of the city once was, this building stood as the center of justice for the city. Tried to get around paying tariffs? This is where they sent you. Smuggling contraband in the “Holy City”? It was dungeon-time here for you. Trying to make your name as a pirate? Definitely gonna be chained up here. When the Revolution came, the Exchange and Provost Dungeon took on a new role in the city. Fearing the obvious hazard of storing their gunpowder in the arsenal out in the open as they had been, Colonists built a secret room behind the dungeon to store the powder. When the British occupied Charleston, the dungeon was used to jail those they viewed as treasonous, but despite this they never discovered the hidden room with the local militia’s gunpowder.
The tour started in a different fashion than I am used to at places such as this as we descended to the very bottom of the building first and foremost. While it made perfect sense, I am used to starting on the ground floor and moving on from there but it is all good. Led by a incredibly informative costumed tour guide we were led through the damp dark dungeon which once served as the city’s prison. My applause goes completely to the preservationists who have maintained this site as the bleak atmosphere this place no doubt held 300 years ago was perfectly recreated (albeit safer than it was as an actual dungeon). The waters the city sits on still seeps into the old prison adding a rather neat touch, as the tour guide explained this natural moat rises and lowers based on the weather even to this day. While those experiencing the hand of justice for smuggling contraband in the 18th century may have hated this, myself in the 21st century found this to be fascinating. Our small group was led through the dimly lit cavern, learning about the various wax figures of famous and infamous prisoners from pirates to revolutionaries.
After exploring the nooks and corners of the old dungeon the tour continued into the large building above ground. Placards told the story of Charleston during the American Revolution as each room held a fascinating display. There was the room where Isaac Hayne was held before being hanged for treason against the British with the sole piece of furniture being his own casket. Along the window sills there were even cards giving neat historical facts from what could be seen out the window. That is how I learned there was a church that served as an important town hub during both the American Revolution and the Civil War. I will say as a huge nerd who is all about all things Civil War it was a bit of a bummer that they kept this Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon role during this conflict downplayed. I get it though, not only was Charleston on the wrong side of this war, but they were a cultural hub of the Confederacy. This is not something one would be particularly proud of. Even the area surrounding the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon carried on the story of the history from the museum. There was even the oldest liquor store in America down the block. My excitement over this was dimmed however, because not only was this shop tiny, a group of jabronis bogarting the counter for free samples made the whole thing quite claustrophobic.
The fact that the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon still stands is a credit to historical preservationists who I give a healthy salute to. Such important sites to a community’s past should be preserved for future generations to visit and learn about. This is not simply an important piece of Charleston’s history but for the country as a whole.