10 historical “firsts” that happened in Charleston


The College of Charleston | Photo by @collegeofcharleston

Table of Contents

Trendsettin’ since 1670

Did you know that in 2020, Charleston will celebrate its 350th birthday? The Charles Towne Colony was established all the way back in 1670that’s more than 100 years before the U.S. declared itself an independent nation.

Many will be familiar with some of our firsts (like CofC being the oldest municipal college in the U.S.), while others are a bit more obscure (like being home to the first opera performed in the New World).

QUIZ: Can you guess which of the following historic “firsts” of our nation happened right here in Charleston?

Read on to check your expertise with our top ten Charleston “firsts”.

1. The first municipal college in America

college of charleston cistern yard

College of Charleston | Photo by @sydneyblumberg

🥇 College of Charleston
🎂 Founded in 1770, chartered in 1785

CofC came under the control of the city of Charleston in 1837, making it the oldest municipal college and the 13th oldest higher education institution in the United States.

2. The first tea plantation in North America

🥇 Pinehurst Tea Plantation
🎂 Established 1888

Dr. Charles Shepard founded the Pinehurst Tea Plantation in Summerville in 1888. It closed after his death in 1915– but in 1963, his tea plants were transported to Wadmalaw Island, where the Charleston Tea Plantation is still considered today as the only commercial tea plantation in North America.

3. The first golf club in America

🥇 South Carolina Golf Club
🎂 Founded 1786

Evidence of the first known shipment of golf equipment to the U.S. arrived from the Scottish port Leith to the Holy City in 1743, delivering 432 balls + 96 clubs. Shortly thereafter, in 1786, the South Carolina Golf Club was founded in Charleston– citing CHS as the “birthplace” of American Golf.

4. The first regularly scheduled rail passenger service in the U.S.


A replica of the Best Friend of Charleston | Photo by @jason_in_cbus

🥇 The Best Friend of Charleston
🎂 Made its first trip on Dec. 25, 1830

Though the first American-built steam locomotive to operate was the “Tom Thumb” in Maryland, it was only meant as a demo + never went into service. Just few months after its debut, the Best Friend of Charleston went into service as the first commercially operated steamer made in America (and the first to carry the U.S. mail). Sadly, the Best Friend of Charleston was destroyed by an accidental explosion a mere six months later– but by then, Charleston had already acquired a second locomotive, and was in the process of adding even more to its passenger service. In 1928, a replica of the Best Friend was built using original blueprints. That locomotive can be found today on display at the Best Friend of Charleston Museum on Ann Street.

5. The world’s first successful submarine attack


The Friends of the Hunley Museum in North Charleston | Photo by @visitnorthcharleston

🥇 H.L. Hunley
🎂 Attack carried out on Feb. 17, 1864

The H.L. Hunley was a Confederate submarine used in the Civil War. It was the first submarine in the world to successfully sink an enemy ship (RIP to its victim, the Union’s Housatonic). Mysteriously, the sub itself sank not long after, killing the eight crew members on board. It wasn’t until 1995 that its wreckage was discovered– though researchers still haven’t figured out what caused the vessel to sink. Tours of the Hunley are available at its current resting place in North Charleston.

6. The first historical district in the U.S.


Rainbow Row | Photo by @asenseofhuber

Photo by @asenseofhuber

🥇 Charleston Historic District
🎂 Established Oct. 13, 1931

In 1931, Charleston established the nation’s first historic zoning ordinance with the creation of the “Old and Historic District” + the Board of Architectural Review. The BAR continues to operate as the authority on new projects, with the goal of preserving + protecting historic neighborhoods.

7. The first Reform Jewish congregation in the U.S.

🥇 The Reformed Society of Israelites
🎂 Founded Nov. 21, 1824

Members of the K. K. Beth Elohim synagogue organized the Reformed Society of Israelites in 1824, marking the first Reform Jewish congregation in the United States. Reform Judaism is now the most popular denomination of Judaism in the United States.

8. The first fireproof building in the U.S.

fireproof building

Fireproof Building | Photo by @highcottontoursofcharleston

🥇 Fireproof Building
🎂 Built 1827

At the time of its construction, the Fireproof Building (or the Charleston District Record Building, as it was known as then) was the most fire-protected building in all of the country– so it’s no surprise that it survived the Great Fire of 1861. Today, it’s considered the first fireproof construction in the U.S. The structure reopened in 2018 as the South Carolina Historical Society Museum.

9. The first female publisher + franchise holder in the U.S.

Elizabeth Timothy portrait by Henry Benbridge | Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Elizabeth Timothy by Henry Benbridge | Public domain image

🥇 Elizabeth Ann Timothy
🎂 Published her first newspaper on Jan. 4, 1739

Elizabeth Ann Timothy made history by becoming the first female publisher + franchise holder in the United States after taking over her late husband’s newspaper company, the South Carolina Gazette.

10. The first opera performed in the colonies

🥇 Flora: Or Hob in the Well
🎂 Opened Feb. 8, 1735The 18th-century play Flora: or Hob in the Well was known as a “ballad opera”– being that its songs played a crucial role in the storytelling aspect of the play. It was performed at Shepeard’s Tavern (located on Broad Street, at the site where the Citizens and Southern Bank Building now stands) in 1735, making it the first opera in recorded history to be produced in North America.


Most Greek people– including my great-grandparents– began arriving in the United States through Ellis Island in the late 19th + early 20th centuries. Considering my own heritage, it was particularly cool to learn that a one-time Charleston resident, Maria Gracia Turnbull, arrived well before that time (in the early 1700s) + is actually considered by some to be the first Greek woman to settle in North America. That claim is even etched onto her headstone over at St Philip’s Church.