The Islands from A-Z

By Suzannah Smith Miles

A wealth of history, facts and a unique environment all come together to make the Charleston Lowcountry an enchanting and extraordinary place that millions of people visit each year. From A-Z (almost), here are a few morsels of interesting Lowcountry information.

Photograph by Ginny Horton

Abandoned Forts, Anhingas and Alligators

Sullivan’s Island has been a military post since the first Fort Sullivan (later Fort Moultrie) was erected at the onset of the Revolutionary War. Subsequent fortifications and batteries were built during the Civil War, Spanish American War, World War I and World War II. A few of these abandoned forts and batteries still remain. Some have been turned into residences, and one serves as the Sullivan’s Island public library. At the southern end of the island, Fort Moultrie is now open to the public as part of the National Park Service.

It is a little frightening the first time you see an anhinga swim in the water, because it does so with its body submerged and its long, curved neck stretching out of the water, which resembles a snake (hence its nickname of “snake bird”). Anhingas dive deep to spear fish with their sharp beaks. Unlike waterfowl with waterproof feathers, anhingas must air dry their feathers by stretching out their wings after a dive. So if you see a glossy, blue-black bird perched on a piling or buoy with outstretched wings, it’s not a hurt (or unhinged) bird – it’s probably an anhinga drying off.

Alligators are a way of life in the Lowcountry. They can reach lengths of up to 19 feet and are known to have an indiscriminate diet – any bird, turtle, fish or mammal within reach of their powerful jaws is fair game. They are regular inhabitants of residential retaining ponds and area golf courses, and they’ve been known to visit a front porch occasionally! Thank goodness they mostly keep to themselves. But never feed a wild alligator, be cautious and keep your distance. They are faster than you think!

Barrier Islands, Blanketflowers and Breach Inlet

Sullivan’s Island, Isle of Palms, Dewees, Capers and Bull’s are barrier islands, so named because they form a natural barrier protecting the mainland from storms and storm-driven seas. The typical barrier island is thin and elongated, with a beach that includes a series of protective dunes on one side and creeks and marshlands on the other side. The very nature of barrier islands is change; they continually adapt to the natural ebb and flow of tides, currents and storms. The beaches may erode, but left alone, they will build back up again.

Decorating beach paths and helping to hold sand dunes together, the sand-tolerant evening primrose attracts a host of butterflies and bees and is often found near a patch of blanketflowers, known by their russet-colored petals and a light yellow border. Because of the islands’ temperate climate, both bloom almost all year-round.

Breach Inlet separates Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island. It changes constantly and has a long history. When explorer John Lawson was going to cross “the breach” in 1700, he had to wait for high tide just to get a canoe with a draft of 2 feet across. By 1776, even at low tide the inlet was too deep for the invading British army under Lord Cornwallis to cross on foot. During the Civil War, the Confederate fort, Battery Marshall, was erected on the Sullivan’s Island side, and it was from Breach Inlet that the CSS Hunley left on the night of February 18, 1864, to make history as the first submarine ever to sink an enemy vessel.

Cape Romain, Capers Island and Cassina

Early 16th century Spanish explorers named the archipelago just below the Santee River “Capo Romano.” Now known as the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, this Class I Wilderness Area was established in 1932 as a protected habitat for migratory waterfowl, shorebirds, seabirds and a host of resident species. It includes a 22-mile stretch of pristine salt marshes, as well as uninhabited Bull’s and Capers islands.

Capers Island was named for Captain William Capers who owned the island in the early 1700s when he and his son, Richard, used it for keeping cattle. In later years, it was used as a plantation for growing rice, timber, ranching and oyster farming.  The island remained in the family for 175 years.

Cassina can be found growing on all the islands. It is a woody shrub, also called yaupon, that is recognized by its bright red-orange berries. A member of the holly family, its scientific name is Ilex vomitoria, which serves as a descriptive memory of how early Native Americans made a tea called the Black Drink with its leaves and drank it in excess for ritualistic cleansing. Taken moderately, the leaves of the cassina, which contain caffeine, make a suitable substitute for tea. During the 1930s and 1940s, several plantations along Rifle Range Road in Mount Pleasant grew cassina for this use.

Dancing, Dewees Island and Dunes

When the Isle of Palms resort opened in 1898, one of the biggest draws was a huge dance pavilion that measured 319 feet long by 90 feet wide. It had a 400-square foot dance floor of polished wood, said to be the grandest dance floor in the entire country. The pavilion became popular for Saturday night dances or “hops,” with music by Fort Moultrie’s First Artillery Band.

Dewees Island was named for William and Cornelius Dewees, who owned the island in the late 1700s and built ships there. Like Capers and Bull’s islands, Dewees is accessible only by boat. Today, Dewees has a carefully guided, upscale residential community.

Sand dunes are essential to the barrier island ecosystem. These gentle hills of soft, white sand form the first line of defense, blocking wind and absorbing the impact of storms. Dunes also help replenish the beach by redepositing sand that has been eroded by high tides. They are held together by various natural grasses and vegetation, including clumps of tall, slender sea oats (Uniola paniculata).

Ferries and Fiddlers

Prior to the building of the first bridge across the Cooper River in 1929, the only way to get from Charleston to Isle of Palms or Sullivan’s Island was via ferry boat to Mount Pleasant, followed by a trolley ride to the islands. All sorts of watercraft were used over the centuries, from sailing vessels to steam-powered side-wheelers.

Swarming the islands’ marsh creek banks are fiddler crabs (Uca pugnax), with the males usually waving one oversized claw, or cheliped, aloft in a pugnacious display of masculinity. This display is intended to warn other males away and entice a female into his burrow to lay eggs. Only at the point of mid-tide does a male fiddler stop waving in order to feed.

Hurricanes, I’on and Jasper

The South Carolina coast is in the path of what is known as “Hurricane Alley,” with tropical storms from the Atlantic or the Caribbean regularly affecting the islands. While the majority of storms are minor, historically a major hurricane hits the coast every 30-40 years. The last big blow was Hurricane Hugo in September 1989.

I’on Avenue on Sullivan’s Island takes its unusual name from Colonel Jacob Bond I’on (1782-1859.) This popular and well-liked planter, U.S. Army and militia officer and state legislator grew up on his family’s plantation on Hobcaw Creek, which today is the upscale Mount Pleasant residential community called “I’on.”

Battery Jasper, a coastal gun battery built on Sullivan’s Island in 1898, and Jasper Avenue were both  named to honor Sergeant William Jasper, a hero of the Battle of Fort Sullivan that occurred on June 28, 1776. In the battle, a small band of patriots in a half-finished palmetto fort faced a much larger invading British fleet. When an enemy shell shot away the fort’s flagstaff, Sergeant Jasper climbed the ramparts and raised the flag in the midst of the fighting, rallying the patriots and doubling their resolve. The patriots soundly beat the British, and the Declaration of Independence was signed one week later.

Lighthouse and Long Island

Built in 1962, the 140-foot-tall lighthouse on Sullivan’s Island was originally the second most powerful light in in the Western Hemisphere. The power has since been reduced, but the light can still be seen 26 miles out at sea. The triangular shape of the lighthouse makes it impervious to hurricanes. Known officially as the Charleston Light, it is now fully automated.

Isle of Palms was originally known as Long Island for its exceptional length (some six miles) and was owned by the Swinton family and their forebears, the Scotts, for two centuries before it became a resort and beach destination. Dwelling houses and other support buildings on the plantation were located in about the same area as the front-beach business district is today. The main “crop” was lumber, particularly oak and pine, taken from the island’s extremely dense maritime forests and shipped to Charleston and northern cities. The main plantation dock was on the north end of the island at Dewees Inlet.

Marshes and Officers’ Row

The salt marshes are rightfully called the “nursery ground of the Atlantic,” for it is within this muddy universe that the entire marine ecosystem begins. Shrimp, crabs, oysters, clams and mussels get their start here and, in turn, become food for fish and other creatures. Marsh grass (Spartina alterniflora) is said to produce more organic material than the most productive wheat field. The extremely soft marsh mud is locally known as plough (pronounced pluff) mud. The name comes from the nutrient-rich mud’s use as fertilizer in earlier centuries, when planters would have the mud ploughed (plowed) into their fields.

One of the more beautiful relics of Sullivan’s Island’s former presence as a military post is Officers’ Row, a line of nine enormous two-story dwelling houses constructed in 1901 for senior officers. Located on I’on Avenue between stations 17 and 18, they were flanked at the Station 17 end by the plantation-style Post Commander’s Quarters. At the Station 18 end stood the Bachelor Officers’ Quarters, a spacious, two-story building fronted by wrap-around piazzas. All are now either private homes or condos.

Palmetto and Poe

Isle of Palms was aptly named for its numerous sabal palmetto trees. Growing to heights of 60 feet, these trees played an important part in the Battle of Fort Sullivan in June 1776. The little fortification was made of mostly sand and palmetto logs, which doesn’t sound terribly sturdy. But because palmetto trunks are extremely fibrous and full of moisture, the enemy cannonballs were absorbed into the spongy trees rather than splintering them, and damage was minimal. South Carolina subsequently became known as the Palmetto State and the palmetto is South Carolina’s state tree.

Famous writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) served at Fort Moultrie from 1827 to 1829, under the alias “Edgar A. Perry.” Although The Gold Bug was written much later, he set the locale on Sullivan’s Island. He also used Charleston as the backdrop for two other works, The Balloon Hoax and The Oblong Box. And there is speculation that his poem Annabelle Lee is about a girl he met while stationed at Fort Moultrie. The library on Sullivan’s Island (housed in a former Spanish-American war battery) is aptly named the Edgar Allen Poe Library.

Sea Oats and Sewee

One of the main stabilizers of island sand dunes are sea oats (Uniola paniculata). Each sea oat plant has a remarkably complex root system that branches out, intertwines and helps hold the soft sand of the dunes in place. A mere 6-inch-tall sea oat plant may have roots that extend as far as 5 feet below the surface. Sea oats are so vital to the dune ecosystem that it is against state law to pick them.

The Sewee were a coastal Indian tribe, members of the Siouan linguistic group, who lived in small villages along the mainland shore from Charleston Harbor to the Santee River. The Sewee called the barrier islands their “hunting islands” and regularly canoed to them to hunt turkey, deer, wild boar and bear. They also fished the creeks, crabbed, searched for whelks and harvested oysters.

Stations, Wax Myrtles and Yucca

In 1898, to transport people from the ferry dock in Mount Pleasant to Isle of Palms, the Charleston & Seashore Railroad Company created a state-of-the-art electric trolley system. It required erecting two trestle bridges, one from the mainland to Sullivan’s Island and the other across Breach Inlet. A lasting reminder of the trolley line are the cross streets on Sullivan’s Island, which are still named for the trolley  “stations”  along the route to Isle of Palms.

Early 18th century explorer Mark Catesby called wax myrtles “narrow-leaved candleberry bushes.” Each fall, thousands of small waxy berries are produced by this native evergreen. In earlier centuries, these berries were harvested and boiled in large vats, gleaning a fragrant wax that produced “bayberry” candles. The most popular candles at the time, bayberry candles were highly regarded for a delicate scent that was deemed “fit for a lady’s chamber.”

Where you find wax myrtles, you’ll usually find Yucca plants, which are also known as Spanish Bayonet for their stiff, dagger-like leaves that come to extremely sharp points. Yucca plants bloom throughout the summer and into the fall, sending up a center stalk that droops with white, bell-shaped flowers.

Suzannah Smith Miles is a prominent Lowcountry historian and author of The Islands: Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms, an Illustrated History.