Note: For more about the Isle of Palms’ early days as a resort, please visit the South Carolina Picture Project’s main Isle of Palms entry.
The pier on the Isle of Palms dates to 1953, when it was constructed by J.C. Long of the Beach Company. Long – a lawyer, developer, and future state senator – had purchased 1,300 acres on the island seven years earlier, in 1946.
The pier reflects of a long tradition of tourism on the island. The Isle of Palms first opened as a resort in July of 1899, after being bought by Dr. Joseph S. Lawrence, a Beaufort native who was president of the newly-formed Long Island Development Company. Backed with Northern investment funds, Lawrence orchestrated the purchase in November 1897 and quickly set out to create what he called the “Coney Island of the South.”
One of his first actions was to rename the island, which had previously gone by the more humble – and accurate – appellation, Long Island. With an ear for marketing, Lawrence chose “Isle of Palms” – despite the fact that the island actually abounds with palmettos, which are botanically unique from palms.
Another early action was to build a rail line that could carry passengers on a trolley from Mount Pleasant through Sullivan’s Island. Known as the Charleston and Seashore Railroad Company, it is said to have carried 60,000 passengers to the Isle of Palms during the resort’s inaugural month.
The 50-room Hotel Seashore, shown here, was built in 1902; it was expanded twice, once in 1908 and again in 1913 (for an eventual total of 300 rooms). The resort featured plenty of amenities to attract visitors, who primarily hailed from South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. The most prominent attraction was an oceanfront pavilion that stretched 2,000 feet along the shore. Afternoon and evening dances were hosted there during the warmer months, and live music included acts by the First United States Artillery Band. Its attached dining room offered an elegant atmosphere with white linen table cloths and “modern” glassware.
An amusement park with a carousel followed, and a Ferris wheel was imported from Atlantic City. Another favorite ride, the Gravity Steeplechase Racecourse, was brought down from Coney Island. A steeplechase was a precursor to today’s rollercoasters; the one at the Isle of Palms was U-shaped and allowed riders to race atop one of six mechanical horses. Each turn cost 10 cents.
The original pavilion burned during the 1920s but was soon replaced with a two-story version. Called the Playland Pavilion, it was managed by the Hasselmeyer family. Its centerpiece was its open-air dance hall, which helped attract performances by such notable artists as the Drifters, the Tams, Bob Crosby (Bing’s little brother), and the inimitable James Brown (who also performed at nearby Remley’s Point).
By the time the Playland Pavilion burned on September 13, 1953, this pier was in place. When it was constructed, it was touted as the longest pier in the Carolinas, stretching 1,000 feet into the sea. The pier quickly became a favorite place to take in the scenery of the island and also offered exceptional fishing.
Today, the pier is privately owned and gated. It belongs to the Sea Cabins and Oceanside Villas, and guests there can enjoy fishing here provided they have licenses from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
Back in the early 1980s, the owners of the Sea Cabins rebuilt the pier (1). Less than a decade later, in 1989, Hurricane Hugo struck the South Carolina coast with the eye passing through McClellanville, just north of the Isle of Palms. The Category 4 storm destroyed the pier’s catwalk as well as most of its pilings. It has since been rebuilt but is now shorter than it once was (2).
For those who aren’t staying at the resorts, the pier still offers excellent opportunities for photography, as seen on this page. The original Isle of Palms pier no longer holds the record as the longest in South Carolina; the pier at Folly Beach, which was constructed by Charleston County’s park system in 1995, extends 45 feet farther than the old Isle of Palms pier did.
Newspaper Article on the Isle of Palms Pier Construction
The following article was published in the Charleston News and Courier (now called the Post and Courier) on April 10, 1953. It details the construction of the fishing pier on the Isle of Palms. For ease of reading, it is transcribed in full below.
GOING FISHING – Driving the first piling for the 1,000 foot Fishing Pier at the Isle of Palms are Walter I Chapman Jr., mayor of the Isle of Palms, in cab; Robert C. Harley, president of the Exchange Club of the island; and J. E. Long (left), father of the J. C. Long, developer of the island resort. It is family tradition for the elder Mr. Long to be present at the groundbreaking of all new projects undertaken by J. C. and L. D. Long. The pier will be located east of the pavilion and will be the longest fishing pier in the Carolinas. It represents an investment of $100,000.
First Pile Is Driven for Big Isle of Palms Fishing Pavilion
By J. V. NIELSEN JR. News and Courier Staff Writer
A small group of Isle of Palms owners and contractors gathered on the front beach of the Isle of Palms to inaugurate construction of what was described by Mayor Walter I. Chapman Jr. as “the largest single attraction for tourists Charleston will have.”
The occasion was driving of the first pile for the new Isle of Palms Fishing Pier. The 1,000 foot structure will be the longest of the Carolina coast.
Besides Mayor Chapman, the gathering included John E. Long, father of J. C. Long, president of the Beach Co., owners of the pier, who sighted the location for the first pile.
Attending also was Robert C. Hartley, president of the Isle of Palms Exchange Club, which was active in sponsoring the pier, and Frank J. Still, manager of the Beach Co.
After piles have been driven on the beach decking will be constructed on them and the piledriver will be rolled out over the surf on the deck to extend the piling out into the ocean.
“This is the beginning of a big development of the Isle of Palms as a seaside resort,” Mayor Chapman said. “Projects of this nature are needed to attract visitors to Charleston and the island and I am hopeful that this is only the beginning of many such attractions.”
A piling contract has been let to the C. Y. Thomason Co. of Greenwood. The superstructure will be built by the Construction Service Co. of Isle of Palms.
Reflections on the Isle of Palms Pier
Photographer Suzanne Prior shares her photo (below) and says: “While on vacation in August 2017, my husband and I were staying at the Sea Cabins which is located right on the Isle of Palms Beach. One morning I couldn’t sleep and for once I was thankful. I walked down to the beach and was greeted by this glorious sunrise with the stark contrast of the pier. The colors were amazing!”
Isle of Palms Sources
1. Many thanks to Carrie Crosby Hodges and Tharin Walker for sharing their knowledge of the Isle of Palms pier both before and after Hurricane Hugo. Mr. Walker also added this interesting story: “It was just the tops of pilings out in the water/surf break zone (land part still had some remaining I think). ‘Shooting the pier’ while surfing was a cool thing while it was like that. You rode the wave through the remains of the pier. I did it once; that was enough for me.”