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The History of West Ashley: The Evolution of a Unique Community

If you're a resident of the greater Charleston area, you're familiar with West Ashley. But do you know its history?


The History of West Ashley

West Ashley, a large area with a rich history and several diverse neighborhoods, gets its name because it lies west of the Ashley River across from the Charleston peninsula. Most of West Ashley is part of the City of Charleston, rather than a standalone town, and more than half of the city’s residents (roughly 80,000) call the suburban and increasingly urban districts “West of the Ashley” home. It is a triangular-shaped piece of land, almost a peninsula of its own, bordered by the picturesque Stono and Ashley Rivers.


A Google map showing West Ashley and the Charleston peninsula
Image 1: A Google map showing West Ashley.

Back to the Beginning:

Even though Charleston is now the Lowcountry’s historic urban center, Albemarle Point in today’s West Ashley- now Charlestowne Landing State Park- was the first permanent English settlement in South Carolina, established in 1670. The Ashley River, whose marshes and banks were the border of Albermarle Point, was named for Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, one of the Lords Proprietors who owned Carolina. West Ashley lies in St. Andrew’s Parish, an Anglican parish established in 1703.


bridge pathway to a building at Charlestowne Landing State Park
Image 2: Charlestowne Landing State Park, Wikimedia commons.

By 1680, the colonists had relocated to present-day Charleston, and West Ashley became plantations like Hillsborough, where an experimental garden was located in the early colonial era, and the Bluff, owned by the famous Pinckney family.  Charlestown Landing along Wappoo Creek became Old Town Plantation. Further to the west were Middleton, Magnolia, and Drayton plantations, which form the rural boundary of West Ashley. These protected, beautiful, and complex cultural landscapes are open to the public today.


Early twentieth-century ink map by H.A.M. Smith showing West Ashley plantations.
Image 3: Early twentieth-century map by H.A.M. Smith showing West Ashley plantations.

After the Civil War, large plantations gave way to “truck farms” where cabbage and tomatoes were grown for local sale.  The famous 1959 Coburg Cow on Savannah Highway is a reminder of the agricultural past when Coburg Road held a dairy farm. Part of Hillsborough became Maryville settlement community, named for freedwoman Mary Mathews Just. Though Maryville later lost its 1888 charter, it remains an important Black neighborhood that has resisted development. It retains houses from the early 20th century, as well as its culture.   


A hand drawn historic plat of Ashleyville/Maryville.
Image 4: A historic plat of Ashleyville/Maryville.

Image 4: A historic plat of Ashleyville/Maryville.


West Ashley is Born:

After the first Ashley River Bridge was constructed in 1926 and Charlestonians began to buy cars, developers started transforming West Ashley into “bedroom community” subdivisions like Crescent (1926), Windermere (1926), Stono Park (1928) and Byrnes Downs (1943).  Politicians created public service districts to bring piped water and sewerage. West Ashley attracted working and middle-class young families from downtown Charleston and the North Charleston Navy Base because of its safe, picturesque residential streets, good schools, and large yards. 


Historic illustrated postcard of the first Ashley River Bridge.
Image 5: Historic postcard of the first Ashley River Bridge.

Early development in the 1950s and 1960s was grouped along Savannah Highway within a few miles of downtown Charleston.  West Oak and East Oak Forest, for example, were laid out in 1947 and 1955 and offered “large, wooded lots with moss-covered trees in one of Charleston's newest and finest subdivisions. Sensible restrictions. Paved streets. City water.” Before it could become a town of its own, West Ashley was annexed by the City of Charleston in 1959. The city gained a growing tax base and West Ashley residents gained even better city services and roads.


1949 newspaper advertisement for the Crescent. 
Image 6: 1949 newspaper advertisement for the Crescent. 

Suburban Growth:

By the 1970s, new subdivisions began cropping up along Ashley River Road (Highway 61).  Constructed in phases beginning in 1979, Highway 526 connected the lands north of the Stono River with the rest of the Cities of Charleston and North Charleston via interchanges and junctions that made previously inaccessible property ripe for commuter suburbs. Glen McConnell Parkway was completed in the 1990s to connect Bee’s Ferry Road with Savannah Highway just west of 526.  The explosion of growth from the 1980s hasn’t stopped, as development continues further south towards rural Ravenel and northwest on Highway 61. 


Neighborhood Highlights:

Brynes Downs and the Crescent boast colonial revival houses on oak-lined curving streets. Byrnes Downs is named for South Carolina native, James F. Byrne, Secretary of State under President Truman.  Its streets are named for early colonial leaders, such as Craven and Colleton roads, for two original Lords Proprietors. Windermere has residences with marsh views of Wappoo Cut.


A listing photo for 61 Beverly Drive in Windermere. A one story birck house between two large trees
Image 7: A listing photo for 61 Beverly Drive in Windermere.

Along Highway 61, former farms became “Shadowmoss (with a golf course and Country Club in its midst), Middleborough Condos, Village Green, Drayton on the Ashley, Ashleytowne Landing, Canterbury Woods, McLaura Hall, and Schieveling Plantation (which has an archeology site).” The subdivisions are on high ground near the beautiful Ashley River, within a National Register district.


Vibrant West Ashley Today:

West Ashley is close to Charleston, James Island, and North Charleston, but residents find everything they need without having to cross a bridge to another community. Savannah Highway is lined with restaurants and an “auto mile” with every make from Dodge to Maserati for sale.  Highway 61 and Sam Rittenberg Boulevard are home to big box stores, bookstores, vet clinics, with specialty shops in South Windermere Shopping Center.


West Ashley has nearly twenty parks, playgrounds, and public trails, plus several boat landings. The 8.8 mile West Ashley Greenway follows an old rail trail giving residents safe and scenic biking options. 


A pizza shop in an old movie theater and locally owned shops.
Image 8: A pizza shop in an old movie theater and locally owned shops make Avondale a popular place. Photo from CharlestonLivability.com

“The downtown of West Ashley” is Avondale, an eclectic 1950s borough that offers residences on quiet streets behind the kitsch and fun locally owned, chain-free shopping and restaurant district lining Savannah Highway.  Gene’s Haufbrau and Avondale Wine and Cheese bar, Pearlz’ Oyster Bar, Mellow Mushroom Pizza, and Charles Town Fermentory are staples, but the 1972 Ye Olde Fashioned Ice Cream Shop is most locals’ favorite. 


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