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Charleston Harbor coal dump site, a kayaking tour worth its salt

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Kayaker Tom Taylor of Greenville paddles under the towering Arthur Ravenel Bridge in Charleston Harbor. With proper planning and a sense of adventure, you will be able to enjoy the history and beauty of the city of Charleston by the water.

Do you know what a “bottle of coal” is? No, that’s not the name of a party cocktail or an old-fashioned dance craze. The name refers to a facility where materials such as coal can be transferred to and from railroad cars and loaded onto ships or containers for transportation. Here in the Lowcountry, the “Coal Tipple” is the nickname for the “Charleston Export Coal Terminal,” an abandoned industrial site in the Port of Charleston.

The Coal Tipple site is located on Town Creek along the marshy shore of Charleston Harbor on the Cooper River side of the city. The site contains a cluster of crumbling brick and concrete structures – and several hundred yards of charred and blackened railroad pilings. Once a major industrial facility, it has long been abandoned and now stands in majestic decay on the edge of nature and within sight of the city which has moved on to more modern energy needs.

More than just a relic of the past, the Coal Tipple site is a fascinating destination for boating or kayaking. It is close to the house and offers stunning views of the Lowcountry landscape and the mysterious allure of industrial ruin. Just make sure you keep a safe and respectful distance.

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The ruins of Charleston Coal Tipple can be visited by boat and offer unique views of Charleston’s industrial history. Here, kayakers Tim Brown and Steve Houghtaling of Savannah and George Hancock of Beaufort inspect the site from a respectful distance. Matt Richardson

The Coal Tipple site was established in 1915 as the Charleston Coal Export Terminal. The land was acquired from the neighboring Magnolia cemetery. Coal was the primary source of energy for American cities, homes, and industries at the turn of the 20th century, and this new Charleston location was to be the only coal terminal south of Virginia on the east coast. Originally owned by the Southern Railway Company, the Coal Tipple site is said to have processed 2,000 tonnes of coal per hour at its peak.

The Coal Tipple site changed hands over the years, and in the 1950s it was closed and purchased by the State Ports Authority. The site languished for several decades and fell into disrepair. A fire in the 1970s destroyed much of the trestle and the Coal Tipple made history.

Various plans have been proposed to preserve or develop the site, but today it is still empty. For now, the crumbling brick buildings and burnt-out trestles of the Coal Tipple site offer a view of the stark beauty of the contrasts and are fairly easy to reach by boat. You just need to watch the traffic.

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Playing in traffic: Kayaker Steve Houghtaling of Savannah watches an approaching container ship as it passes through Charleston Harbor, near the ruins of Charleston Coal Tipple. Charleston is one of the busiest seaports on the East Coast, and harbor boating can be a challenge for the unwary, as well as an exciting adventure for those looking to enjoy the history and the beauty of the Lowcountry. Matt Richardson

The Coal Tipple site can be seen from the Arthur Ravenel Bridge crossing the Cooper River in Charleston and is directly across from Remley’s Point Public Boat Landing in Mount Pleasant. From there it’s about a mile paddling over the water and along the northern edge of Drum Island.

Once near the Coal Tipple site, you will understand why it fascinates photographers and boaters in the Lowcountry. Brick ruins rise above the dark green swamp, open to the elements, and the fire-blackened trestle stretches like a row of dragon’s teeth across the blue waters of Town Creek.

The Coal Tipple site is privately owned and the ruins are dangerous to explore, so no trespassing is allowed. It can be enjoyed at a safe distance, as well as other places in the harbor that can be easy to visit.

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The Fighting Lady: The USS Yorktown (CV-10) is a WWII US Navy aircraft carrier and the pride and joy of the Patriot’s Point Naval & Maritime Museum in Charleston Harbor. Thousands of visitors flock to this historic site each year to see and experience history. Here, kayaker Bob Tucker of Bluffton is eclipsed by the massive ship as he walks past him while exploring Charleston Harbor en route to visit the ruins of Charleston Coal Tipple. Matt Richardson

One of them is the Patriot’s Point Naval & Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant. Here, the mighty aircraft carrier USS Yorktown and other historic ships are docked as a floating museum. Within sight of the public jetty at Remley’s Point, Patriot’s Point is also easily accessible by boat or kayak and offers an adventurous water-level view of the exhibits.

Recently I kayaked to the Charleston Coal Tipple site and Patriot’s Point with a group of friends. We launched at Remley’s Point Boat Landing at ebb tide for a short ship tour at Patriot’s Point. As the tide changed, we rode the updraft to Town Creek to inspect the Coal Tipple site. A few hours of traveling on favorable tides gave us an exciting day filled with the history and beauty of the “Holy City” and the Lowcountry.

The only challenge we faced during our visit was the heavy traffic of container ships and tugs plying the port. Charleston is a busy port and large ships don’t stop for small kayaks or boats. Nonetheless, it was just a reminder that times can change and industries can disappear, but the Lowcountry remains as beautiful as ever.

Getting There

The Coal Tipple site is on the edge of the swamp near Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery, along the Cooper River in Town Creek. It’s inaccessible on foot – and is a dangerous ruin on private property – but it can be easily seen from the water with a boat or kayak.

Remley’s Point Public Boat Landing is located at 112 2nd St., Mount Pleasant, approximately a two hour drive from Beaufort County. The landing is open from dawn to dusk year round, and there is ample parking. There are no facilities at the wharf, Coal Tipple site or other port sites.

Paddling to the Coal Tipple site can be a challenge for those not used to high tides or heavy sea traffic. In Charleston Harbor proper, south of the Arthur Ravenel Bridge, water conditions can change quickly as weather and tidal changes can cause large swells and white hats on short notice. It might be best to stay as close to the shore as possible. Container ships and other vessels move much faster than they appear. There may be a real danger of collision for the reckless or inexperienced paddler or boater. Be careful, have a plan, and be prepared for a tough but rewarding day on the water.