Waterway Profile: Cummings Creek – A Covered Connection

Unbeknownst to many, Colonial Lake is fed by Cummings Creek, which, once a naturally existing creek, now flows beneath downtown streets by way of a concrete culvert.  Last month’s Great Oyster Point Runoff allowed us the opportunity to draw the connection between the quality of our most beloved waterways and the onslaught of stormwater runoff that pours into the hundreds of stormdrains throughout the city every time it rains.

To best appreciate Cummings Creek’s rich history, one must look back to the 1700s when the majority of the west side of the Charleston peninsula was marshland.  One creek on the west side, Cummings Creek, lead from the Ashley River into the heart of the peninsula – a typical tidal creek, full of life and importance.  According to one historical account of the landscape, “the point formed by the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, and known as Oyster Point, was low and marshy, and cut up by numerous creeks.”  Oysters were so prevalent throughout the landscape that settlers initially called the peninsula Oyster Point.  This is a sign of two things: the role of tidal creeks and wetlands as filters was in full force and the quality of the water was pristine enough not to overload the oyster population’s ability to filter the surrounding waters.  In other words, the entire ecosystem was in balance.

Eventually, by the late 1700s, Broad Street Canal was dredged, and the adjacent marshland was reserved in trust for the City of Charleston.  In 1870, a pond is created at the headwater of Cummings Creek.  There is much stipulation as to whether the creation of the Rutledge Street Pond was for commercial use or merely for easier access to the Ashley River.  Soon, in the 1880s, construction throughout the Colonial Common resulted in an oyster shell walkway and concrete retaining wall around the pond.  The pond, still tidally influenced by Cummings Creek, provided an ideal playground for children and residents alike.  It was not uncommon for paddle boats to fill the waterfront while anglers tested their luck in the pond and along the feeding creek.  In 1881, the Rutledge Street Pond took the name Colonial Lake in honor of the surrounding property, Colonial Common.

At some point in mid-1900s, the majority of Cummings Creek was captured inside a concrete culvert and hidden from site, under what is known today as Canal Street.  Though the water still rises and falls between the Ashley River and Colonial Lake by way of Cummings Creek, the majority of this action goes unnoticed beneath city streets and Moultrie Playground.

Photographs of Cummings Creek, taken facing westward (1. Cummings Creek at Barre Street; 2. Cummings Creek at Barre and Canal Streets; 3. Cummings Creek at Canal and Gadsden Streets).

Today, Cummings Creek is the only entity standing in the way of Colonial Lake becoming a stagnant cesspool, the unfortunate recipient of polluted runoff from the land (i.e. fertilizers, pesticides, oil, gasoline, animal waste, and more).  It maintains flow between the Ashley River and Colonial Lake and serves as the gateway for all polluted runoff, coming from the nearby community.  The flowing water (rising and falling with every cycle of the tide) of covered Cummings Creek can be seen beneath any stormdrain on Canal Street (a very fascinating site to see!).

Intern Si Wofford proudly raises a water sample after monitoring by the culvert flowing into the open portion of Cummings Creek. The outfall culvert at Cummings Creek is one of Charleston Waterkeeper's water quality monitoring sites.

As we further develop our water quality monitoring program, we will be publishing our results online for public benefit.  In today’s built environment, “tidal creek ecosystems are the primary aquatic link between stormwater runoff from the land and estuaries.  Small tidal creeks begin in upland areas and drain into larger creeks forming a network.  The creeks increase in size until they join a tidal river, sound, bay, or harbor that ultimately connect to the coastal ocean.  The upper regions or headwaters of tidal creeks are ‘first responders’ to stormwater runoff and are an important habitat for evaluating the impacts of coastal development on aquatic ecosystems.” (NOAA – “Tidal Creek Habitats”)

It is undeniable, the amount of stress put on a waterway like Cummings Creek.  Between the decreased amount of once naturally existing creek, the impact of siltation, and the harm from stormwater runoff, Cummings Creek is just one of the many vital waterways working in overdrive throughout the Lowcountry, operating to the best of its ability to maintain as much balance as possible.   A simple visit to the Colonial Common will quickly link, for any observant passerby, the often times ambiguous connection between our built environment and the quality of our waterways.

So remember, the next time you’re strolling down a street and walk over a storm drain, take a look beneath your feet and consider the waterway beneath you, recognizing the eventual path polluted stormwater will soon take to the nearest river or mighty harbor.

In an effort to shed light on the importance and varied characteristics of the many waterways throughout the Lowcountry, Charleston Waterkeeper will begin occasionally profiling a different waterway, shedding light on its history, its current state, and the role it plays in our region’s overall ecosystem.

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