The Edge of America: A History of Folly Beach, South Carolina
The history of Folly Beach Island is not an average tale of peaceful development. It is a story of pirates, shipwrecks, disease and soldiers. But despite all of this, and the effects of a hurricane, the island has grown to become a thriving beachside community.
Pirates and Shipwrecks
Pirates also used Folly and the nearby islands as hideaways and stopping points. The stories about these buccaneers include tales of buried treasure but a hoard of gems and gold is yet to be unearthed!
Other inhabitants found themselves on the island unexpectedly – but with relief. These were the survivors of the shipwrecks that occurred regularly in the ocean off Folly Beach. Unfortunately, the luck of the 120 sailors and passengers who made it to shore after the wreck of the Amelia in 1832 soon ran out. Officials in Charleston blocked access to and from the island and put a stop to any supplies because some of the wreck’s survivors had cholera.
The story behind the name refers to the plague and other infectious diseases. Before ships entered Charleston Harbor, they would leave on the island any passengers and crew who appeared to be ill. In this way, the ships avoided quarantine delays. On their return from the harbor, the ships would collect those people who still lived. Many, of course, had died in the meantime and were in their coffins.
The Civil War
But the Federal army considered the island to be vitally important. Before long, the soldiers constructed roads, forts, an artillery battery and the Pawnee Landing supply depot. As a result, Folly Island soon had the capacity to hold up to 13,000 troops and their equipment.
Fighting on the island was limited to a brief engagement between a Confederate reconnaissance team and some Federal pickets on 10 May 1863. But the artillery battery was put to use shelling Fort Wagner. This engagement was part of the Battle of Morris Island: from July to September 1863, the Federal army used Folly Island as its main strategic base for the battle. When the island’s artillery and troops overcame Fort Wagner, the Federal forces moved the battery to the captured fort and began attacking Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.
Federal soldiers did not move from Folly Island until the end of the Civil War. One unusual reminder of their occupation came to light in May 1987 when construction workers discovered 14 bodies at the western end of Folly Beach. A subsequent investigation by the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology established that the remains were of soldiers from the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment. What was surprising, however, was that 12 of the bodies did not have skulls and other body parts. The bodies also had no obvious signs of battle injuries. Just why the bodies were buried in this manner is currently a Civil War, and Folly Beach Island, mystery!
A Community Develops
One of the most famous people to visit Folly Beach Island during these years was the composer and pianist, George Gershwin. It was while staying here that he composed the classic opera Porgy and Bess.
From the 1940s onward, the building work steadily proceeded, reaching a peak in the 1960s with the construction of the Ocean Plaza with its amusement rides, boardwalk, shops and pier. Since then, the arrival of the Holiday Inn in 1985 on the site of the former Oceanfront Hotel confirmed that Folly Beach Island is here to stay.
There have been serious problems in the past fifty years, however. In 1957, the Oceanfront Hotel, the Pavilion and Joe’s Restaurant burned down. In 1977, there was a fire that destroyed the Pier. And finally, in 1989, Hurricane Hugo devastated Folly Beach and the surrounding districts.
Nonetheless, the strength of this community is such that Folly Beach Island fully recovered from these disasters. The island’s history therefore continues, and in a way that reflects its status as a destination for vacationers and a desirable place to live.