Sandy Island in Georgetown County got its name from the 9,000 acres of prehistoric sand dunes that comprise this refuge. The island and its unincorporated community exist between the Pee Dee and Waccamaw Rivers and can be accessed only by boat. Thanks to a joint effort by the island’s residents, the Coastal Conservation League, and SCDOT, the land now belongs to the people of South Carolina and The Nature Conservancy. It is the largest undeveloped freshwater island on the east coast.
The Sandy Island community was founded by a freed slave who had worked on local rice plantations. Many of the current residents are his descendants. Because the residents live isolated from the influence of the Grand Strand’s modern culture, the Gullah way of life here is preserved.
In 1996 a controversial bridge was proposed by private developers for hauling timber on and off the island, but the purchase of the land by the state and The Nature Conservancy guaranteed it would remain untouched by development, including the bridge. As a result, residents must have boat access in order to leave the island. Sandy Island children take the state’s only school boat to and from their schools on the mainland.
The boat was christened the Prince Washington and is named for the community founder’s great-grandson. After ferrying children to the mainland each school day since 1964, the Prince Washington was finally replaced just in time for the new school year in 2015. The new boat was named the New Prince Washington.
Sandy Island may be close to the bright lights of Myrtle Beach, but the island did not have electricity until 1965. Just a quick boat trip transports people to a simple world where the locals retire in peaceful solitude after a long workday on the mainland.
Yet the waterway is not without its perils. A stormy night in February of 2009 claimed the lives of three islanders on their way home from the mainland. Since then, residents have been pushing for a ferry to make travel to and from the island safer. The tragedy shook this close-knit community of about 120 people and brought to light the realities of island living. In March of 2013 the South Carolina Legislature approved a resolution to provide a ferry for the island. The resolution awaits approval in the Senate, though any resolution is nonbinding and only suggests that the Department of Transportation provide the ferry.
There is commerce on the island. Pyatt’s General Store is a sunshine-yellow oasis of sodas, snacks, Gullah folk art, and Sandy Island souvenirs. Though people must do their heavy shopping off the island, one can wander into Pyatt’s and quench a quick thirst or satisfy a craving for the “Best Ice Cream in Town.”
The existence of endangered plants and animals such as long leaf pine (Pinus palustris) and the red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) help ensure that Sandy Island will remain a protected area in which they can thrive. The Nature Conservancy uses prescribed burning regularly to manage the island’s longleaf pines, many of which are are over 100 years old and dominate the island’s canopy, with live oaks (Quercus virginiana) filling out the understory.
The island’s old schoolhouse was built in 1932 by Archer Huntington, noted philanthropist, builder of Atalya, and husband of Murrells Inlet sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington. Though it is no longer used as a school, it serves as a conference center for town meetings on the island.
Pictured above is a simple bed-and-breakfast known as Wilma’s Cottage, and those who have stayed in the bunglaow-style home rave about the home cooking served to guests. Visitors can venture onto Sandy Island via one of four boat landings on the Waccamaw and Pee Dee Rivers. New to the island is a two-mile hiking loop through the nature preserve at Sandy Island. Established by The Nature Conservancy, the walk provides interpretive signage about the local natural community. The trail begins at Thoroughfare Creek Landing. For more, see the website below. People may explore the island, but because wildlife is protected, feeding animals and picking plants and flowers are prohibited. It is also important to remember that the residents appreciate their quiet lives on Sandy Island.
The above photo, titled Sandy Island, was contributed by photographer and author Vennie Deas Moore. The image also appears in her book Home, which “explores the joys and hardships of the people who continue to reside in this portion of the Lowcountry.”