Every night, animated guides from Bulldog Tours resurrect Charleston’s notorious ghosts as they escort curious souls through the eeriest cemeteries and cells in the city. But it’s not just spooky, centuries-old tales that owner John LaVerne is out to preserve. “Charleston has kept a unique hold on its past through architecture, customs, and cuisine,” says the native history buff, who got his start in the industry as a carriage driver after graduating from The Citadel in 1991. “Our buildings, houses, and churches are a huge part of American history, and it’s essential that we protect them.” And in that spirit of preservation, over its 14-year lifetime, the company has contributed nearly two-and-a-half million dollars from history, culinary, and ghost excursion ticket sales towards preservation efforts across town.
The idea for a unique synergy between the city’s history guides and guardians came about in 2001 when LaVerne, then in his early 30s, took note of the growing ghost-tour trend and, on a whim, pitched a partnership to the director of the Old Exchange Building. “I shared my crazy idea to bring a nighttime ghost tour through the Provost Dungeon and promised them a third of the admission fees to put toward restoration and maintenance costs,” recalls LaVerne, who was by then working full-time in outside sales and leading tours on the side. The formula quickly proved beneficial for both parties, and a half year later, the trailblazer scrapped his “real job” to venture back to his guide roots and establish Bulldog Tours. “Everyone thought I was insane, but I loved the enthusiasm people showed when learning about Charleston.”
Since then, the sustainable tour concept has garnered him ties to the American College of the Building Arts, which offers Bulldog Tours after-hours access to its main campus site at the Old District Jail, as well as Circular Congregational Church, which grants them moonlit passage through its graveyard, all in exchange for a portion of the earnings. Proceeds from these partnerships have helped fund building stabilization, facade restoration, window replacement, headstone repairs, and more. “Bulldog Tours has played a significant role in the stewardship of the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon. With the company’s invaluable support, the Old Exchange has been able to offer new programming highlighting 244 years of South Carolina history,” says director Tony Youmans, noting that money shared from the tours has helped fund a capital-improvement project that includes exterior refinishing to be completed in early 2016.
Indeed, LaVerne has gotten pretty good at sharing, generously donating tour passes and funds to a variety of charities, from children’s organizations like Hugs for Harper and MUSC Children’s Hospital to veterans causes like Operation R&R and The American Legion. “Helping these groups is my way of saying, ‘Thank you, world, thank you, God, for giving me two kids who are healthy, smart, and have plenty of opportunities,’” he says.
A regular sponsor of Family Connection of South Carolina, which supports families of children with special needs, Bulldog Tours annually hosts a free spooky stories tour that addresses the distinct mobility requirements of the nonprofit’s participants, many of whom are in wheelchairs. “It’s crucial that every child, whatever his or her needs, has a chance to learn about our city,” stresses LaVerne.
To that end, Bulldog Tours also provides a complimentary summer walkabout to any student who shows a recent honor-roll report card. “Kids are fascinated by this city’s living laboratory of history and nature: earthquake plates, cobblestone streets, ‘diapered’ carriage horses, pirates, alleyways, gardens, and more,” he says. “All they need is to see it, and I love the opportunity to make that happen.”
By the numbers
937,683 inquisitive locals and visitors have strolled with Bulldog Tours during its 14 years in business.
The company has raised $2,434,566 for local preservation efforts.
54 employees boast a combined 423 years of tour-guiding experience; each walks an average of 674 miles annually on the job.
79 charities, including Family Connection of South Carolina, MUSC Children’s Hospital, the Hugs for Harper Endowment, Dorchester Children’s Center, The American Legion, and Operation R&R, have received financial support from the company.
The tally of tour tickets given to charitable organizations: 14,708