Today a bustling tourist attraction, the Charleston City Market wasn’t the same hotbed of activity in the 1980s. But Joseph R. Riley Jr., Charleston’s mayor at the time, had a vision for the area. In 1986, Charleston Place (then an Omi hotel property) opened on King Street, bringing a major hotel and retail complex to a part of town in need of revitalization.
Not long after the hotel’s opening, the city relocated Charleston’s carriage tour operators from the Battery to the Market – another attempt to revive that area and attract tourists. Benjamin Doyle remembers what a big deal that was for his family’s business, Palmetto Carriage Works.
“We thought it was the last nail in the coffin,” said Doyle, who recalls wearing a “save the carriages” button as a child. “We thought it would be doom and gloom, but we do 50 times the business. It was the biggest blessing.
“It just worked out,” he said, now grown and a key part of the family business. “I think the carriages in the city were in large part responsible for bringing people into the Market just as much as the shopping.”
Rebuilding from Hugo
A short time later, Charleston faced another challenge when Hurricane Hugo struck in September 1989. Palmetto Carriage Works sustained little damage from the category 4 hurricane that struck the Lowcountry. Only two pieces of tin flew off the downtown barn.
Doyle said it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. “For Charleston, it could not have come at a better time,” he said. “It pumped in all that money and made everything look pristine. Everybody had the money to make their houses look right again. Everyone was in this ‘come together’ mode. There was so much camaraderie and togetherness and that helped the economy grow because we were all going through this together.”
In the more than two decades since, Charleston has become a sought-after tourist destination. The rebuilding after Hurricane Hugo, the focus on the culinary scene, the creation of festivals and events, more shopping, new attractions and tours – all these have contributed to the city’s appeal.
Nearly 5 million people visit Charleston each year, creating an economic impact of more than $3 billon for the region, according to the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. Condé Nast Traveler readers have voted Charleston the Best City in America four years running, and the city is regularly featured in national newspapers and magazines.
Palmetto Carriage Works is part of that attraction. On its busiest springtime day, some 1,100 adults will take a carriage tour.
Building a business
Palmetto Carriage Works began in 1972 and is the oldest carriage company in Charleston. Current president Thomas Doyle Jr. joined the company in 1977 as a tour guide. As children, Benjamin Doyle and his older brother, Tommy, joined their father on the carriages.
In the early 1980s, Thomas Doyle bought the company. “Dad saw a lucrative business with lots of potential he could take to the next level,” Benjamin Doyle said.
Except for a brief stint opening a sister carriage tour company in Virginia, the Doyle family has been giving people tours of Charleston for three decades.
The Doyle brothers and their two sisters are all part of the company. “Everybody except Mom works in the business,” Benjamin Doyle said. “There’s no such thing as a quiet family dinner. Usually somebody is working. And we have nothing to talk about except work.”
Today, Palmetto Carriage Works has 16 deluxe 16-passenger carriages, four eight-passenger carriages and six vis-à-vis carriages for private tours. They have 60 to 75 horses and mules that pull the carriages on a rotating schedule. The animals work about 150 days a year, which translates to about 14 hours a week. When they aren’t at the “Big Red Barn” on 8 Guignard St. just off Market Street, the animals are at the company’s farm on Johns Island.
Countering the criticism
For Palmetto Carriage Works, the challenge isn’t managing the flood of visitors eager to take a carriage ride and hear the stories of Charleston’s past, but rather battling criticism from animal rights organizations and individuals who don’t approve of the carriage tours.
The criticism grows especially loud in the summer months when people raise concerns about horses and mules pulling carriages in the heat. The City of Charleston has strict regulations regarding the care of the animals pulling carriages, including ceasing all carriage tour operations when temperatures really soar.
Doyle explained that when the temperature reaches 98 degrees or the heat index hits 125 degrees, all carriage tours must stop operations. Beginning at 85 degrees, carriage tour operators have to take their animals’ body temperature, but this is a practice Palmetto does year-round as way to monitor any potential issues.
The team knows the animals are its livelihood, and the company’s reputation is on the line, so no one takes chances or cuts corners. Animals are monitored carefully and cooled off with fans and water.
Doyle is also quick to explain that these animals often come from Amish farms where they have been pulling loads far greater than a carriage full of tourists.
“Mankind has been working with (horses and mules) for thousands of years,” he said. “We don’t put costumes on them and make them do tricks. They do the same thing they’ve done for thousands of years.”
The carriage tour companies came under additional scrutiny during July 2015 when a horse was spooked while leading an Old South Carriage Co. tour. According to news reports, the horse was startled by a cement truck and jumped. The carriage jackknifed and horse sat down before collapsing on its side. The horse was fine, but the incident renewed the carriage debate.
This year, Palmetto Carriage created a video documenting its animal welfare program with interviews and video footage from its farm. Customers and passersby are always welcome in the Big Red Barn to see the animals and ask questions. Large signs explain the rules and outline the extensive efforts to keep the animals safe and well.
“We’ve taken proactive steps to push the positive PR,” Doyle explained.
Doyle along with his father and brother regularly speak to groups and organizations about their business and how they care for the animals. Palmetto Carriage Works has never had a heat-related death or injury.
“We are very proud of the record we’ve built in 30 plus years in the business,” he said.