Edingsville Beach: South Carolina's Antebellum Atlantis
by Nate Fulmer, MRD
When Hurricane Matthew grazed Edisto Beach in the early morning hours of October 9th last fall, it arrived at nearly high tide packing some serious surge. The most powerful Atlantic storm since 2007 churned up winds and waves that caused several oceanfront homes to collapse, downed large oaks, and covered roads with a thick blanket of debris and sand. Image 1: Palmetto Boulevard after Matthew (Courtesy Finn's Island Grill, Edisto Beach)
As striking as the post-storm images of Edisto Beach were, other sections of barrier beaches on the island fared much worse as countless cubic yards of sand disappeared into the Atlantic Ocean overnight. Of course, erosion and storm damage on some of the barrier islands near Edisto Beach is nothing new. In fact, rapid erosion was a major source of frustration and heartbreak for a neighboring community well over a century ago.
For those unaware, Edisto Beach was not the first popular vacation destination in that vicinity. During the first half of the 19th century, a different oceanfront settlement thrived just a few miles to the northeast on a narrow spit of sand between Jeremy Inlet and Botany Bay called Edingsville, or simply "The Bay" by locals.
Established by and for wealthy island planters and Charleston families as a seasonal refuge from the stifiling Lowcountry heat and humidity and an escape from the malarial 'miasma' and mosquitoes of the marshes, Edingsville Beach was all the rage in the early 19th century. For a few decades at least, it was the place for the state’s plantation elite to see and be seen. During this time, Edingsville hosted the largest concentration of plantation noblesse between Charleston and Savannah each summer.
Prior to development, the strand at Edingsville Beach was backed by an impressive wall of high sand dunes. The expanse of high ground behind the dunes was forested, but all that sand was otherwise worthless for agricultural use. The little island remained accessible only by water until around 1800, when Benjamin Edings built a causeway from Edisto Island and began selling or leasing lots on the beach to local planter families.
Image 2: An un-dated photo depicts the high dunes at Edingsville with a horse and carriage on the beach (Courtesy Edisto Island Historic Preservation Society)
When Lafayette visited Edingsville Beach during his tour of America in 1825, his secretary Levausseur noted the "altogether pictureque" appearance of the houses on the island resort. By this time, the seasonal community at Edingsville was well established and it continued to grow into a thriving oceanfront vacation destination. In its heyday, there were several churches, a schoolhouse, a billiard saloon, and about 60 impressive brick and tabby homes. There were also a number of service buildings, fresh water cisterns, fishing shacks, and boathouses.
Not unlike visitors to Edisto Beach today, summer residents of Edingsville Beach probably spent very little time in their beach houses. Summer days at Edingsville revolved around outdoor recreation on the beach. At night, social functions ruled, with soirees and dances often rounding out the daily intinerary. But, like many popular fads, the good times at Edingsville Beach didn’t last.
As opposed to the storied sudden destruction of Atlantis, it was an extended series of unfortunate events that led to the loss of this once-famous settlement by the sea. Almost as quickly as the village of Edingsville Beach rose to fashion, unstoppable forces of nature intervened and began to take the whole island and everything built on it right into the ocean.
Soon after seasonal occupation at Edingsville Beach began, visitors noted that ever-lapping tides and shifting sands were taking a toll on the once-expansive beach. Around twenty of the island’s houses were lost to the angry Atlantic surf before the first shots of the Civil War were fired just up the coast in Charleston. The island was largely uninhabited during the War Between the States, but the erosion continued, unaffected by the human conflict in which the resort’s residents were embroiled.
Charlotte Forten was an African-American abolitionist, poet, and educator who taught school for years, including a stint teaching freedmen here in South Carolina during the Civil War. Her diaries written during the war have since been published in numerous editions. In June of 1864, she accompanied several Union sailors during a brief visit to Edingsville Beach and the following description of the abandoned settlement was published in The Atlantic: "After a delightful row, we reached the island near sunset, landing at a place called Eddingsville (sic), which was a favorite summer resort with the aristocracy of Edisto. It has a fine beach several miles in length. Along the beach there is a row of houses, which must once have been very desirable dwellings, but have now a desolate, dismantled look. The sailors explored the beach for some distance, and returned, reporting "all quiet, and nobody to be seen"; so we walked on, feeling quite safe, stopping here and there to gather the beautiful tiny shells which were buried deep in the sands."
By the time the War of the Rebellion was over, around 40 houses, two church buildings and the billiard saloon were still standing. Of course, the devastation of the southern plantation economy left most Lowcountry planters bankrupt and many of the founding families were forced to abandon their summer homes forever. In the decade following the war, some of the beach houses were leased by African-American farmers and sharecroppers. Recognizing the impending loss to the mighty Atlantic, at least one merchant dismantled his store into sections in order to float it several miles inland to higher ground. By 1872, storm surges and tidal action had greatly undermined the natural sand dune barriers that protected many of the homes from the ocean. At this point, a vicious cycle of erosion and neglect began to claim the remaining structures in rapid succession.
An unpublished manuscript written by Eberson Murray, one of Edingsville’s final residents, states that most of the houses standing on Edingsville Beach were two-story buildings with spacious verandas. He adds that the homes were spaced far apart, lined up in two rows. One row overlooked the ocean, while the other overlooked the marsh, much like many of today's modern barrier island communities. According to Murray, the interiors were wainscoated, plastered throughout and comfortably furnished.
Image 3:1955 sketch of Edingsville Beach by Faith C. Murray, based on a painting by former Edingsville resident Cecil Wescott (Courtesy Post & Courier)
The knockout blow to the historic occupation at Edingsville came in August of 1885, in the form of yet another direct hit by a hurricane. Eberson Murray was present when the storm struck and was horrified to witness the surge strip the porches from his and his neighbor’s houses. According to his account, they watched helplessly as the surge continued to grow and high tide came in. By nightfall, his house the other oceanfront homes had been swept away into the Atlantic. Only a couple of houses remained standing after that storm and those last bastions of civilization on the island rapidly fell into further disrepair. Abandoned altogether after the 1885 storm, the infamous Sea Island Hurricane of 1893 erased the final vestiges of the settlement at Edingsville Beach once and for all.
Today, only legends and memories of this lost vacation resort remain as any extant foundations are submerged beneath the waves several hundred yards out to sea. The narrow strip of beach that fronts the gated Jeremy Cay community overlays what was once the marsh behind Edingsville Beach. It is closed to the public and access requires permission to cross private property. But at low tide, visiting beachcombers and island residents alike search the shifitng sands and pick through the shells at Jeremy Inlet, looking for relics of the area’s opulent past.
Following Hurricane Matthew’s close pass along our shores last October, we fielded a couple of reports of possible exposed cultural material from Edisto Island, including some articulated bovine skeletal remains near Edingsville that were reported to us and State Museum paleontologist Dave Cicimurri by hobby licensee Ashby Gale. Image 4: Cow bones in situ (Courtesy Ashby Gale) Radiocarbon dating of one of the bones recovered from the same site in 2016 yielded a date of 150 years, so it's likely these animals died and were buried between 1865 and 1870. For more detail on the faunal analysis of the cow bones, check out Dave's article in this issue.
While modern visitors are accustomed to seeing deer and raccoon scamper around the town of Edisto Beach, Edingsville was a popular spot to raise livestock back in the day. This use makes a lot of sense in light of the poor quality of the land for other agricultural purposes. Those cow bones reported by Ashby Gale emerged from the pluff mud within a stone’s throw of a narrow 57-acre finger of high ground called Cowpens Island. Registered by William Edings in 1769, Cowpens Island long served as a wooded pasture for livestock. The causeway built by Benjamin Edings crossed right over Cowpens on its way to the Edingsville Beach. In context with historic records, the bones Ashby documented may represent the remains of livestock that once grazed in the pastures of Cowpens. We may never know for sure, but the owner of these cattle was likely associated with the Edingsville community.
In the early years of Edingsville Beach, hogs were apparently allowed to roam free on the island. Eberson Murray also described a flock of goats that ranged freely on the beach in the later days of the settlement, much to the consternation of their owner's neighbors. Perhaps the practice of free-ranging hogs and goats is why we find no mention of any nearby places called Hogpens or Goatpens.
In February, we traveled to the island with Dave and a team of volunteers to investigate the site for additonal remains. Unfortunately, we were unable to locate any additional pieces of Reconstruction Era cattle (or free-range pork) during our visit. Several hours of probing and digging test pits produced a lone bird bone, but the specimens we came for had disappeared, likely scooped by enthusiastic beachcombers who did not realize the possible scientific value of those old bones in the mud.
However, a short walk along the retrograding beach revealed a plethora of wave-polished bricks and glass, bits of rusted iron, broken pieces of historic ceramics, and irregular-shaped chunks of tabby. We even noted a heavily-concreted hand iron emerging from the sand.
Just as we were about to call it a day, we noticed a parallel series of vertical rough-cut timbers interlain with horizontal members and a layer of oyster shells that had recently been exposed by total erosion of the overlying sands. In situ in the exposed marsh mud, this crude structural feature extends from the short dunes at the back of the beach and leads right into the surf. Image 5: A possible remnant of a section of the causeway to Edingsville Beach was recently exposed by erosion. Although this feature is located on the beach in 2017, this section originally bridged the marsh behind Edingsville Beach (SCIAA, SCSM)
Back at the office, I was able to georeference the 1852 Coast Survey map on modern satellite imagery. Correlated with coordinates taken during our visit, it is likely that the structural feature we documented represents the remnants of the cribbing, rafting and fill from a section of the causeway that had once acted as the only path across the marsh to Edingsville Beach.
Although our intended mission to recover the rest of those historic cow bones came up short, the unexpected rediscovery of the road to Edingsville Beach made the effort worthwhile. As is often the case in archaeology, we'll chalk this one up as an unplanned win. With the accelerated erosion occuring on that part of the island, detailed documentation of any exposed features is one of our recomendations for future investigation there.
And as the sea continues its unabated march inland toward Columbia and hobby licensees continue to report new material, I expect we’ll revisit additional exposed remnants of Edingsville Beach again sometime in the future.
Further reading on Edisto and Edingsville: