January 08, 2020

Article at Graham on Authory

Georgetown, S.C.: A brief history

By Graham Osteen

Written for The Hartsville, S.C. Discussion Group, October 2007

My earliest memories of going to the beach from Sumter (S.C.) revolve around the drive to Georgetown.

The final leg of the journey began in that legendary port city where magical smells always prompted wild accusations of gastrointestinal wrongdoing in the car.

No one could escape, and no one could forget, “The Georgetown Smell.”

The routine was always the same –  there was finger pointing as the windows came down and the noxious fumes from the paper and steel mills came pouring in.

“See,” my little brother would say. “It’s not me.  It’s Georgetown.”

We always stopped there.

After all, we had worked diligently for more than an hour since leaving Sumter on what to order at Hardee’s, which was a wonderful and completely novel restaurant back in the 1960s, with its Huskees and Junior Huskees and milkshakes and fries.

We’d hit Independent Seafood Market for shrimp and other goods, then cross those great bridges over Winyah Bay as fresh salt air and coastal smells replaced the industrial ones. It was then up the Waccamaw Neck and on to Murrells Inlet.

I grew up exploring the waters of Murrells Inlet, and came to believe that it was about the greatest place on earth. Once I acquired a driver’s license at age 15, I’d trailer the boat over to Wacca Wache Marina and explore the Waccamaw River. Sandy Island was almost always empty back then – a sort of Treasure Island – so it was a memorable slice of paradise for thrill - seeking teenagers in the summer.

I eventually took my little 15-foot Glastron ski boat with a 75-HP Evinrude up the Waccamaw River, under the bridges, all the way to Georgetown, through Winyah Bay and out to the Atlantic Ocean, and it was then that I realized there was a very big world outside of the Georgetown Smell and the Hardee’s restaurant.

Since July, I’ve been living on Front Street in Georgetown, and have found that Winyah Bay and its surrounding waters and marshes are even more vast and intriguing than I ever realized. I’ve only begun to scratch the surface in terms of exploring all it has to offer, and tonight’s paper is meant to provide just a general overview of the area’s rich history and geography.

As I began my research, I realized I couldn’t focus on Winyah Bay alone without offering some history of Georgetown, and you can’t focus on Georgetown without mentioning its industrial history, etc., etc. It became a case of “so much history to write about, and so little time,” especially since I had forgotten that I had the October Discussion Group paper, and it was just two weeks ago that Cindy Watts asked me what my topic was going to be.

The challenge has been to break down an overwhelming amount of good information into a manageable form, and perhaps even hit on something you may not already know. Georgetown and the Waccamaw Neck are areas that most of you are very familiar with, so I look forward to your own observations and memories during the discussion phase tonight. 

I’ve drawn from numerous sources, including the new South Carolina Encyclopedia; Suzanne Linder’s Historical Atlas of the Rice Plantations of Georgetown County and the Santee River; Jerry Wayne Caines’s new book, “A Caines Family Tradition: A Native Son’s Story of Fishing, Hunting and Duck Decoys in the Lowcountry;” material acquired from the Winyah Bay Heritage Festival; and the Hobcaw Barony Research Center and the Georgetown County Museum, both of which are worth visiting if you haven’t already. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

In the beginning....

The Georgetown area’s history is generally traced back to 1526, when it is believed to have had the earliest settlement in North America by Europeans with African slaves.

The Spanish, under Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón, founded a colony on Waccamaw Neck called San Miguel de Guadalupe. The colony failed, probably due to a fever epidemic and a revolt of African slaves who went to live with some local Indians in the area.

Having failed as farmers, the surviving Spanish sailed to the Spice Islands of the Caribbean on a ship built from local cypress and oak trees. There are currently some projects going on that seek to find evidence of these early settlers, and there is a sophisticated sonar research vessel in the area, operating out of Land’s End Marina. It is believed there are numerous shipwrecks both in the bay and in the area off the entrance to it, which can be quite treacherous. 

After settling Charles Town in 1670, the English established trade with the local Indians along the Winyah Bay and the trading posts in the outlying areas quickly became settlements. By 1721, the petition for a new parish, Prince George, Winyah, on Black River was granted. In 1734, Prince George, Winyah, was divided and the newly created Prince Frederick Parish came to occupy the church at Black River.

Prince George Parish, Winyah, then encompassed the new town of Georgetown on the Sampit River. During that same time, the King of England granted the Hobcaw Barony to Lord Carteret. This area become well-known for rice culture and the general region of Georgetown County was one of the richest areas in the colonies.

On the Barony are remnants of a civil war fort, a rice mill, three slave villages and cemeteries. Artifacts of early Indian settlements are also still found throughout the area. The King's highway, which was the coastal road from Wilmington, N.C. to Charleston, S.C., crosses the property. In 1729, Elisha Screven laid the plan for Georgetown and developed the city in a four-by-eight block grid.

Referred to as the “Historic District,” the original grid city is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and still bears the original street names, lot numbers, and many of the original homes. 

The Indian trade declined soon after Georgetown was established and indigo became the cash crop with rice as a secondary crop. Agricultural profits were so great between 1735-1775 that in 1757 the Winyah Indigo Society, whose members paid dues in indigo, opened and maintained the first public school between Charles Town and Wilmington.  

The Modern History 

Here are some random observations about the area’s modern history that I found interesting: 

The Atlantic Ocean is 14 miles from the port of Georgetown. The Federal government spent $2.5 million on jetties and harbor improvements between 1886 and 1905. That work paved the way for better sea access, improved commerce, and the port of Georgetown as we know it today.

There is a book of photographs called “A View of Our Past: Georgetown South Carolina circa 1890-1915,” that show the scale of that particular project. Huge rocks were floated on barges out of the Sampit River, into the bay and out to the ocean, where they rest today. It was a massive and dangerous undertaking. 

In 1935, the Lafayette Bridge and the paving of U.S. 17 linked Georgetown and the Waccamaw Neck. The “original” bridge replaced the ferry crossing that some of you may remember (or maybe not) and opened the Neck up to the tourism, commerce and growth that we know today.

The U.S. 17 bridge that we use now was constructed in about 1965 – during the Vietnam “Wahwuh,” as one prominent local historian told me. The Lafayette Bridge is now a public fishing pier.  

Atlantic Coast Lumber Co. 

The Atlantic Coast Lumber Co., which closed in 1932, dominated life in Georgetown during the first 32 years of the 20th century. Rice had been the economic mainstay of the region for most of its history, from the early 1700s until the Civil War.

Reconstruction was particularly rough in Georgetown County, and the need for an economic engine was vital. The ACL developed the former rice fields west of the city.  Wharves, warehouses, a foundry and a power plant were built. Streets were laid out, sewers, a water system and machine shops were built, as were a hotel and a mercantile house. Block after block of residences for executives and laborers were completed and the ACL began operation in 1899, the same year as Sonoco.

A fire in 1913 destroyed two of the three mills. A new steel and concrete plant was erected on the same site within 10 months, and it was called the “largest strictly fireproof sawmill in the world and the largest lumber manufacturing plant on the Atlantic coast.”

The ACL operated logging camps to supply its mills by rail and raft. There were some 317 miles of main line tracks and 70 miles of logging road leading into Georgetown.

The principal rail connection was by the Georgetown and Western Railroad, later absorbed into the Seaboard Airline Railway Co., which extended 36 miles from the mills to the junction at Lanes.

From Andrews the ACL had trackage rights for its log trains to Charleston and to spur lines stretching into its other timber holdings. The shops that maintained the cars were located in Andrews.

Marketing was also done by rail and water. Before incorporation, the ACL products were moved by the Atlantic Coast Steamship Co. The first two vessels were the Georgetown and the Waccamaw. The selling agent was the Export Lumber Co. with distributing plants in New York, Boston and Ottawa.

After 1903, the company transported lumber on its own steamships. In 1932, the ACL closed its Georgetown plant and the region reached the depths of the Great Depression. The ACL had drastically changed the landscape of Georgetown County, including a railroad from Hagley on the Waccamaw River to Pawleys Island. 

International Paper Arrives

The Georgetown International Paper mill was built in 1937, and began operating in 1942.

It was one of eight mills the company built in the South, and was hailed as the largest producer of Kraft paperboard in the world.

An official with IP told me recently that the plant remains important and is generally expected to continue into the foreseeable future. Technology has improved the emissions and smell to the point that only on certain days when it’s particularly muggy does the smell seem noticeable. 

Georgetown Steel 

The Georgetown Steel Mill – now called Mittal – was built in 1969 at a cost of $7 million. It has closed and reopened in recent years, and is generally expected to close for good in the next few years. The cleanup will be enormous, but the future of the area, particularly as it pertains to tourism and commercial development along the waterfront, is inevitable and vitally important for South Carolina.

There’s a tremendous amount of potential, but the steel mill is definitely the giant elephant in the corner for Georgetown. 

The lighthouse 

The original lighthouse at the entrance to Winyah Bay on the Atlantic Ocean was built in 1801. The first one was destroyed by wind, and rebuilt in 1812. That one was torn down on purpose during the Civil War, and rebuilt in 1867.

The present lighthouse became one of the last manned lighthouses in the nation until its automation in 1986. ­­­­­­­­

Winyah Bay 

The 525,000-acre Winyah Bay area covers the lower drainage of the Black, Great Pee Dee, Little Pee Dee, Sampit and Waccamaw rivers and their confluence into Winyah Bay itself. Together, these waterways form the third largest estuarine watershed on the East Coast.

Rice has been cultivated there for centuries, and the wetlands are a regionally significant habitat for waterfowl, colonial waterbirds and nesting ospreys. Upland tracts support endangered red-cockaded woodpecker colonies. Many other threatened or endangered species can be found throughout Winyah Bay, including bald eagles, short-nosed sturgeon, loggerhead sea turtles, peregrine falcons, least terns, piping plovers, and wood storks.

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen the largest school of dolphin I’ve ever seen swimming in the bay around Hobcaw Barony, and one of the largest alligators I’ve ever seen on the Black River. It may have actually been a dinosaur.  

Hobcaw Barony

Most of you are familiar with the work of Hobcaw Barony and The Belle W. Baruch Foundation. This non-profit organization owns the 17,500-acre wildlife refuge, Hobcaw Barony.

Made as a royal land grant in 1718, it was eventually subdivided into 14 individual plantations. It became the winter residence of Wall Street millionaire and presidential adviser Bernard Baruch. Mr. Baruch's daughter, Belle, purchased all of the barony over a period of several years and at her death a foundation was created to use the land for the "purposes of teaching and/or research in forestry, marine biology, and the care and propagation of wildlife, flora and fauna in connection with colleges and/or universities in the state of South Carolina."

Currently, Clemson University and The University of South Carolina have long term research facilities on the property.

Just last year, a colorful character named Jerry Wayne Caines wrote a book about his family history on Hobcaw Barony, including the long association with Bernard Baruch. His book is titled, ““A Caines Family Tradition: A Native Son’s Story of Fishing, Hunting and Duck Decoys in the Lowcountry.”

The Caines brothers essentially had squatters rights on the land, and the book is filled with stories about their interaction with Baruch, Tom Yawkey and other “Northern guests” through the years.

A pair of the Caines brothers original duck decoys sold for $257,500 in 1992.    

Marketing Winyah Bay

The following is taken from material put together for last year’s first Winyah Bay Heritage Festival. This year’s event will be held once again in late January, and will feature famous famous wildlife artists, duck carvers and others – from all over the country. This is how Winyah Bay is now being presented and marketed, as the treasured and vital resource it is for South Carolina.

In effect, it’s a mission statement:

 “Winyah Bay has long been the sustenance for the geographic region now known as Georgetown South Carolina. From the first inhabitants, the Indians, hunting and fishing has always been the way of life around Winyah Bay.  In 1526, Spaniards made the first recorded North American expedition to Winyah Bay. For a colonist, the indigenous fauna of waterfowl, turkey, deer, fish and shellfish provided the basics to survive. In 1894, President Grover Cleveland fell out of a boat while visiting a Georgetown-area rice plantation on a wintertime duck hunting trip. The hefty President’s misfortune made the headlines on newspapers across the country, and thus Georgetown’s rice fields of wintering waterfowl was no longer a local secret. In 1898, a group of wealthy hunters from mostly New York and Philadelphia established the Santee Gun Club. This gun club was the Augusta National for duck hunters with about 23,000 acres at South Santee River delta. It was reported that 6 members of the Santee Gun Club went out at 4:00 in the morning on November 15, 1902, and in seven hours they shot 242 birds. Stories like this quickly spread among the well-off northern industrialist duck hunters, so that they started to winter south at numbers that would seem to rival the waterfowl they wanted to hunt.  In 1905, Wall Street financier Bernard Baruch, a native South Carolinian who became a Wall Street financier, bought all the rice plantations at the foot of the Waccamaw Neck; a total of more than 17,000 acres. Baruch’s Hobcaw Barony was his winter retreat to hunt ducks, turkey, and deer, as well as to entertain many of his notable friends, which included Winston Churchill and FDR. After visiting the Santee Gun Club in 1906, Captain I.E. Emerson, who made his fortune with BromoSeltzer, liked the area so much that he purchased several rice estates along the Waccamaw River to create his Arcadia Plantation. In 1911, William Yawkey started purchasing large tracts at the mouth of the Winyah Bay that would eventually accumulate to more than 20,000 acres. William died in 1919 and his maternal nephew and adoptive son Tom, inherited his considerable fortune in timberland, mines and oil wells. Tom Yawkey, who would later be known as the legendary Boston Red Sox owner, enjoyed visiting his Georgetown properties, wintering there every year until his death in 1976. For some of Georgetown’s new Yankee landowners, Winyah Bay property was never meant to be an investment. As property values began to rise along the South Carolina coast, their appreciation and respect for the pristine natural resources that provided them regular escapes from their northern city life, guided them to put their lands into protective custody. Yawkey and the Santee Gun Club members gave their large tracts to conservation organizations and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Hobcaw Barony is operated by the Belle W. Baruch Foundation, dedicated to marine, coastal, and forestry research under agreements with the University of South Carolina and Clemson University. Many other private owners of former rice plantations in Georgetown County have entered into conservation easements that prohibit their lands from ever being subdivided or developed in the future.    The Winyah Bay is Georgetown’s heritage.”    ­­­­­­­­­Georgetown and the Winyah Bay remain a relatively underappreciated part of South Carolina’s history, and there are many, many people in the area and throughout South Carolina who are perfectly happy with that.There’s a bumper sticker for the Heritage Festival that reads: “Pluff mud: It keeps the condominiums out.” That’s not an uncommon attitude, but more development is, I believe, inevitable.There are multiple land use projects in the works, and a lot of political maneuvering going on among developers and local officials. The jury is still out on who’s doing what to whom, and who’s going to figure out the next big thing.The area is just too rich in natural resources and attractive land use possibilities to keep growth out, but like the landowners whose generosity and foresight have managed to protect it from the early 1900s until today, local and state leaders owe it all South Carolinians to continue that tradition of responsible stewardship.