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The History of Isle of Palms, SC

Isle of Palms

A very popular vacation spot off of the coast of South Carolina, Isle of Palms, once known as Hunting Island and later Long Island, is covered with beautiful beach homes and an upscale resort.  However, before the 1880s it was virtually uninhabited.  The island stretches from Breach Inlet to Dewees Inlet and is roughly 6 miles in length.  On the northern tip of the island is the Wild Dunes Resort developed beginning in the early 1970s by the Finch Family.  The rest of the island is sprinkled with both older beach cottages dating as far back as the 1940s and beautiful beach mansions.  With a great selection of restaurants and shops, it truly is a gem. 

The island itself is about 25,000 years old and its first known “visitors” were the SeeWee Indians.  No one knows what these Native Americans called the island but they did visit often to hunt and fish.  However, after the SeeWee left the area altogether after the arrival of the English settlers, there were not very many visitors to the island until the late 1800s.  There was a coastal watch set up on Isle of Palms at Breach Inlet which was manned by one “white man” and two SeeWee Indians, but this was the most action the island saw until the Revolutionary War.

In late June of 1776 the British sent a large fleet of ships led by Sir Henry Clinton to attack Charleston.  The Americans, led by Colonel William Moultrie, armed with news of the British invasion, quickly constructed at the northern tip of Sullivan’s Island a fort made of palmetto logs.  As the British fleet began a frontal attack from their ships on the palmetto fort, Clinton secretly sent a crew of soldiers onto Isle of Palms, then Long Island.  The soldiers were to cross breach inlet and attack the Americans from behind. However, they soldier were unable to cross the inlet because of the dangerous currents.  And thus, the island played a role in helping the Americans win a decisive victory at the Battle of Fort Sullivan. 

During the Civil War, the Confederacy set up a training ground for the crew of the Confederate submarine the C.S.S. Hunley.  The island was also used by blockade runners.  Blockade runners were civilians who would try and sneak past the Union Blockade of Charleston Harbor in order to bring supplies and other items to the City of Charleston’s inhabitants. 

The history of Isle of Palms as a vacation spot began in 1897 when Dr. J.S. Lawrence built a public amusement and beach resort.  This new development came with the introduction of the electric street car to the City of Charleston.  Thus, people had a way to travel to the island to enjoy fun in the sun.  It was then that Long Island became known as the Isle of Palms.

The local newspaper read on July 26, 1898: “A great event for the city, the Seashore Road formally opened yesterday.  When the Commodore Perry left the new dock of the Charleston Seashore and Railway Company at 9 o’clock yesterday afternoon her spacious deck was crowded with people, all anxious to be among the first to visit that, as yet, unknown country, stretching vaguely behind the familiar shores of Mount Pleasant and Sullivan’s Island.  The Sappho, her deck also crowded with people, and the Pocosin, not so well patronized, steamed out of their docks just a moment before.” After the passengers arrived in Mount Pleasant and departed their ferries, they then would load up on trolley cars and cross through Mount Pleasant onto Sullivan’s Island via the old Pitt Street Bridge.  They would then journey across Breach Inlet onto Isle of Palms. 

Once on the island the visitors had plenty of things to keep them busy and entertained.  The main attraction on the island was the Pavilion. This was the central spot for visitors on the island to gather as there were not beach cottages or hotels on the island at the time.  There was a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round and a restaurant on the island that served a meal for 50 cents.  It is said that at the time the Ferris wheel, first invented in 1893, was the biggest in the world.  The New York Herald Tribune published a beachgoers poem who had reminisced about the Isle of Palms Ferris wheel. 

If I dispatch the mind ever so gently

To yesterday, I can embrace you now;

And with lids closed, to visit you more clearly,

O towering skeleton, I chant this vow__

That all my life I shall demand to see you

Shall turn with you and almost touch the sky;

Below a vast immeasurable blue,

The trackless dunes…Time’s mutability!


Embark to an Arcadian past again

And share the wonder of a miracle;

A giant wheel upon a sandy plain.

Across the bay St. Michael’s tower gleams.

Majestic oaks await no oracle—

No intervals of change attack my dreams

The steeple chase was a popular attraction and it was a sort of roller coaster that had been imported from Coney Island.  On the steeple chase there were five mechanical horses and the riders could race each other around a U-shaped course and the winner received his next ride for free.  The island became such a popular beach attraction that it was not long before it was dubbed the “Play Ground of the South.” 

Before there were overnight accommodations on the island the visitors were only able to make day trips to the island.  The last cars would leave at 11:30 p.m. to meet the last ferry headed to Charleston for the night.  A plantation style bell would ring to let everyone know that it was time to go.  This was especially sad for those who came to the island for “hop-night” which were dances held in the Pavilion on Tuesday and Friday nights.  A fifty room hotel was built in 1906 known as the Seashore Hotel and it was then that people began to travel to the Charleston area just to vacation on the Isle of Palms. 

A second hotel was constructed on the island in 1912 by the Casey family.  Hotel Marion by the Sea was run as a hotel by Bill Casey until 1973.  It was then that Mr. Casey decided to turn the hotel into apartments and the building still stands today at 916 Palm Boulevard.

There were a few single-family homes constructed early on on the island as well.  The very first home was constructed by Nicholas Sottile in 1898.  This home still stands today at 807 Ocean Boulevard. Nicholas kept his home on the Isle of Palms until his death in 1928. He left behind several children and his grandson is the current mayor of the island, Mike Sottile. Another member of the Sottile family, James Sottile, managed to make quite a fortune for himself by marketing Isle of Palms as one of the premier island resorts in the South.  When he died in 1964, he was worth $100 million dollars and was considered one of the 50 wealthiest men in America.

After Isle of Palms became completely accessible by automobile with the construction of the Grace Memorial Bridge the Hardaway Contracting Company began to develop the island.  In the 1940s J.C. Long, creator of the Beach Company, purchased 1,300 acres from the Hardaway Company and began to construct low-cost housing on the island for World War II veterans.  As longtime resident Kathyrn Carrol put it, it was then that “the island matured into the well-rounded gal she is today—part bedroom community (with ocean view!) and part summertime playground with fun and frivolous tourist attractions.”  The Long cottages were sold for $4000-$5000 and the company would build approximately 8 to 12 homes in a week.  The homes were built on concrete slab foundations and many are being torn down today to make room for larger more modern homes. 

The island changed even more when 1,600 acres were purchased by the Finch family from J.C. Long in 1972.  The Finches developed the land into a resort known as the Isle of Palms Beach and Racquet Club.  With the help of the Sea Pines Company, their company Finch Properties built small cottages, condos, a beach house and tennis courts.  As the new resort grew and more homes were being built and its popularity grew, the Finches built a marina, a golf course, restaurants, etc.  Later the Finches renamed the resort Wild Dunes Beach and Racquet Club and in 1984 it was sold and the new owners continued to develop the property.  As time went on the world class resort became simply known as Wild Dunes. 

With the growth of Wild Dunes and the island in general there were plans to construct a new bridge that connected Isle of Palms directly to the town of Mount Pleasant.  Prior to the construction of the so-called “Connector” the only route to and from the island was through neighboring Sullivan’s Island across Breach Inlet Bridge and then over the Ben Sawyer draw bridge which is to this day often opened for boat traffic on the Intracoastal Waterway.  The connector or the Clyde Moultrie Dangerfield Bridge was completed in 1993 and the island was now open to more traffic. As one resident put it in an article in the Post and Courier it “opened up the floodgates for tourism.” 

Today, Isle of Palms is both a favorite beach spot for locals and tourists alike.  There are shops, restaurants, hotels, condominiums and beautiful beachfront mansions.  The Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission opened a park along the beach of Isle of Palms for residents to enjoy and this gave visitors to the island a place to park and it offers camps and other programs to those who wish to participate.