The History of the Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island, SC

The Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island is approximately six miles of pristine white, sandy beaches, natural inlets, and internationally renowned golf courses and amenities. This area was originally called Hunting Island and later Long Island, and was originally inhabited by the Sewee Indian Tribe. English settlers were the first white men that the Sewee had ever seen and they would swim out to the arriving ships and direct the settlers to their camps. The Sewee were reportedly inspired by the British explorers and some tried unsuccessfully to travel to England in their canoes, but most who dared never returned from the sea.

Thomas Holton, a settler from Barbados, was granted title to the island in 1696. Yet throughout the mid-18 century it was called Long Island. Later, notorious pirates were said to have landed on the islands and stories abound about the buried treasures that were hidden throughout the islands, although none has ever been found.

During the Revolutionary War, on June 10, 1776, a British Army General Sir Henry Clinton and his contingent of approximately 2500 troops planned a surprise attack to raid the colonial army encampment on Sullivan's Island. The surprise attack failed when many of the British troops were drowned when they tried unsuccessfully to cross the dangerous swirling waters of Breach Inlet, or were shot by a barrage of musket fire from the colonial troops commanded by Colonel William Thompson of the American Continental Army on the Sullivan’s Islands side of the inlet. Due to Clinton's sound defeat and the brave courage of the dedicated colonial patriots at Fort Moultrie, the British forces were soundly defeated, which forced the retreat of the British fleet from the coastal South Carolina area.

During the Civil War, the first naval submarine, the Confederate Army’s secret weapon the CSS Hunley, sailed out of Breach Inlet to attack and sink the US Frigate warship The Houstonic. It managed to accomplish this feat, but unfortunately the Hunley sank and its crew was lost at sea trying to return to their home port at Breach Inlet, which separates The Isle of Palms from Sullivan’s Island. In 2000, The Hunley was discovered intact off of Sullivan's Island and after complete examination and restoration will be exhibited to the public.

Until late in the 19th century the islands remained relatively unpopulated without any permanent residents, but soon due to its gentle ocean breezes and beautiful pristine beaches, the islands became recognized by Charlestonians as an area of retreat and relaxation from the hot summer heat, humidity and insects.

In 1899, the area called Hunting Island or Long Island was purchased by J.S. Lawrence, who renamed it the Isle of Palms. In 1906, a 50 room resort hotel was constructed to offer the first permanent accommodations for guests. The Hotel Seashore served dinner, with the trolley bringing and returning visitors to the mainland. Another popular attraction bringing visitors to the islands was automobile racing on the beach, which was outlawed in 1953. Automobile enthusiasts found the smooth and wide sandy beaches to be the perfect racetrack for testing and racing the new "horseless carriages," the automobile.

In 1912, James Sottile built a large oceanfront beach pavilion and amusement park with a Ferris wheel. His spacious beach pavilion featured private dining rooms on the second floor, a 400-foot dance hall with high ceilings, a spacious smooth dance floor and windows that opened to the sea on three sides.

The amusement park thrilled visitors with the "Steeple Chase" race and a Merry-Go-Round.  Its enormous Ferris wheel was visible, on a clear day, from the south end of High Battery, over 15 miles away in downtown Charleston. The Ferris wheel was originally built for the Chicago World's Fair in 1892, and also used by the Cotton Congress in Atlanta as well as Coney Island in New York before coming to The Isle of Palms.

Between 1898 and 1928, a ferry was established to enable the residents of Charleston to travel to Mt. Pleasant, and from there catch a rail trolley to Sullivan's Island and the Isle of Palms. The trolleys were horse-drawn carriages that crossed Sullivan's Island on wooden rails in the sand.

After World War I, The Isle of Palms fell into financial difficulty; on February 20th 1924 the county sheriff seized the ferryboats in compliance with a court order. In 1926, the trolley trestle over Breach Inlet was converted into a bridge, to allow the first automobiles to cross from Sullivan's Island to Isle of Palms. In 1929, the Grace Memorial Bridge replaced the Charleston harbor ferry. A bridge connecting the islands was constructed in 1946.

Dr. Joseph S. Lawrence, a prominent Charleston physician of the time dubbed the area the "Isle of Palms" to attract tourists, and active development took off. On August 5th 1913, the Isle of Palms Post Office was opened in Hudson's Pavilion.

In 1938, the Inlet Inn Restaurant at Breach Inlet was open for business. One of only two island restaurants, it was owned and operated by Nell and Griffin Bunch for two years.  Later, the restaurant was purchased by one of the island's future mayors, Carmen Bunch, and her husband, Jack Bunch.

On December 12, 1944, J.C. Long, a prominent Charleston attorney and founder of The Beach Company bought approximately 1,300 acres of the island from Hardaway Contracting Company and began extensive local improvements. Roads were built, water and trash collection were made available and island construction began. Approximately five years later, the small summer resort island of 100 homes had grown into a community of 375 homes, with approximately 250 residents occupying the island year-round. Originally a large portion of the Isle of Palms that was purchased by Mr. Long was developed to provide low-cost housing to soldiers returning from serving in World War II.

In 1945, with the completion of the Ben Sawyer Bridge from Mount Pleasant to Sullivan's Island was opened to automobiles. In 1946, the Surf Deck opened on the front beach and offered dancing, bathhouses, beer and refreshments. Sun bathing and night parties were also popular with the tourists and locals alike.

In August, 1951, the South Carolina Aeronautical Commission completed the construction of the Isle of Palms airport. The 135 foot by 1,800 foot long airstrip was located on the banks of the Inland Waterway, and had a crushed oyster shell surface to extend the length of the landing area.

In 1953, voters filed into the island's Exchange Club, and with 121 in favor and 68 opposing, made the move to incorporate. The City of Isle of Palms was born on January 13, and Walter I. Chapman, Jr. became its first mayor.

In 1970, real estate development grew and Finch Properties purchased a 1,600-acre site on the northeastern tip of the island. In 1975, Charles Frazier, founder of The Sea Pines Co., one of the major developers of Hilton Head Island, established a similar resort on approximately 900 acres at the northeast end of the island. In 1985 the resort bought the island airstrip and converted it into a fairway for its golf course.  Originally called The Isle of Palms Beach and Racquet Club, in 1984 it was renamed The Wild Dunes Beach and Racquet Club and today is called Wild Dunes.

In 1973, negotiation began to construct the new Isle of Palms Connector, when local, federal and state agencies met to discuss improving traffic service to the Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island. It was completed and opened to the public in 1993.

The Isle of Palms soon became an excellent beach community of residential homes and businesses which still cater to the tourist who visit and vacation on the pristine sandy white beaches, miles of the Intercoastal Waterway, natural inlets, excellent golf courses, a marina and other island amenities.

On September 22, 1989 Hurricane Hugo, a class 4 hurricane, slammed into Charleston and the South Carolina coast. More than 95 percent of the buildings and houses on the island were damaged or destroyed, and the Charleston area sustained over $100 million in damages. The island recovered from Hugo, has since rebuilt and today is more beautiful than before the hurricane.

The Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island has grown steadily since their early days as hunting and fishing areas for the Sewee Indians. Today the islands boast about their thriving community of over 4,500 full time island residents that enjoy the islands all year round. With its internationally acclaimed golf courses, hotels, condo’s, restaurants, nightclubs, marina and excellent island resort amenities, Wild Dunes and the Isle of Palms has become a major vacation destination for people from all over the world.

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