The Colonial Commons and Ashley River Embankment Commission

Founded: 1881

Abandoned: 1952

Resuscitated: 2007

Members: 11

A relic of Charleston’s municipal governing structure is being resuscitated to help oversee one of its biggest park makeovers.

The Colonial Common and Ashley River Embankment Commission might not have the budget it once did — or the same legal authority — but its 11 members are doing what they can to improve Colonial Lake and Moultrie Playground.

In the 18th century, before the city Charleston was incorporated, the area roughly west of Rutledge Avenue and south of Beaufain Street, all the way to the Ashley River, was set aside as a Colonial Commons.

Broad Street was extended into the marsh, and the area was used by Ashley River planters who wanted to tie up their boats.

Over time, lumber mills and other businesses encroached into the space. After the Civil War, several residents, including some city aldermen, filed suit to reclaim the commons for public use.

Part of that 1881 settlement created the Colonial Common and Ashley River Embankment Commission.

It essentially acted as an arm of city government before it had a Department of Parks and Recreation. One of its first tasks was to build the concrete-lined lake one finds today, says Nic Butler, a historian at the Charleston County Main Library, where its minutes are kept.

At its peak, the commission received an annual sum from the city, oversaw the lake and Moultrie Playground across Ashley Avenue and had its own employee to open the lake’s tidal gate and maintain the area.

“The commission itself, and the structure, the way it worked, is a left-over of an older era of municipal government,” Butler says. “That was a very common way of handling things in municipal governments across the country in the 18th and 19th centuries.”

The commission’s minutes stop in 1952. That’s around the time the mayor and City Council approved selling part of Moultrie Playground for what became the Sergeant Jasper apartment building. Butler notes six of the 10 commissioners opposed the deal, which went through anyway.

City Councilman Mike Seekings says the commission was revived shortly before he took office in 2009, and he has seen its members become active in scheduling clean-ups and promoting recreational events.

“It’s an interesting and historic body,” he says, “and I think what value they add now is they’re a good clearing house of information in both directions about what’s going on in and around Colonial Lake.”

The commissioners held their fall meeting just a few weeks ago and reviewed the Charleston Parks Conservancy’s plans to raise $1.2 million to help the city with a $5 million upgrade of Colonial Lake.

Plans call for installing new pipes linking the lake with the Ashley River, a step that will improve its water quality. Also, the work includes rebuilding the paths and sidewalks that ring the lake and adding new lighting, planting beds and trees.

Even before that work begins, the commission has been urging the city to pay more attention to the maintenance of the lake and the Moultrie Playground across the street. City Parks Department director Jerry Ebeling reported that he assigned one of his top maintenance crews there.

Michael Master, who previously designed playground and playground equipment and who lives near Colonial Lake, co-chairs the revived commission.

He says while its powers are broadly defined by 19th century law, he is content with its new role as an advisory group that aims to ensure that Colonial Lake remains a bright spot in the city.

“I’m not after power and glory,” he says. “We haven’t asked for any money. ... I’m just pleased to serve the community in this capacity, to work with my neighbors and other civic-minded people to foster this improvement.”

The group also could consult with the Beach Co., which has floated plans for rezoning and redeveloping the Sergeant Jasper building and nearby property.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said the commission “is very important because of it’s history. ... It’s a group of stewards who help keep an eye on something important and feel responsibility for it. One of the things that is special about Charleston is that these old entities exist.”

Seekings says he thinks the commission will continue to be relevant.

“They’ll never be the most powerhouse group in the world,” he says, “but they’re sitting on what is, in my view, the best park we’ve got downtown. And there’s a whole lot going on.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.