Why Sullivan’s Island has no trees

  • Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A photograph taken of Sullivan’s Island in 1865 clearly shows how devoid of trees the island was. The image was taken from Fort Moultrie looking west toward the lower end of the island, and shows some of the houses in what was called Moultrieville. PHOTO PROVIDED

Saturday’s Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast was Verdi’s “La Forza Del Destino” (The Force of Destiny). For me, this great grand opera immediately evokes memories of sailing the open sea in one of the most outstanding racing sloops ever built.

This was some years back and I’d run into the crew of the ocean racing sailboat named La Forza del Destino when they put into Charleston on their way to the Caribbean for the winter racing season. La Forza was a boat built for serious ocean racing. It was a sleek 52-foot working machine with a towering mast, brass coffee-grinder wenches and a gorgeous wheel at the helm. Below deck was wide open, a 50-foot expanse kept clear for rapidly receiving sails and sending others back topside during a race.

Needless to say, when a friend of mine, a veteran small-boat sailor, and I were asked if we’d like to join the crew for their next leg to Hilton Head, we jumped at the chance.

We headed out of Charleston harbor early on a crisp November morning with the overture of Verdi’s opera playing over the boat’s sound system, rather dramatically heralding our passage as we motored through the jetties. The sails were raised when we reached the sea buoy and we steered south.

We could not have picked a more perfect day for a sail. We were on a boat built for speed, sailing with fresh winds at our back and following seas. At times we seemed to be almost flying, slicing the sea as we glided from wave top to wave top. The experience ranks as one of the most exhilarating in my life.

Although we were well offshore we could still see land. At first, I had no problem recognizing familiar land masses.

But it didn’t take long for me to get confused. Was that Stono Inlet? Or was that the North Edisto? Was that Fripp Island? Or had we gotten that far yet? Even with landmarks like water towers, I was struck at how incredibly repetitive our coastline is when looking at it from sea. Inlet entrances are almost identical. The barrier islands stretch on in an uninterrupted chain, one sun-glared sandy beach hardly distinguishable from the other.

And therein lies the point of this week’s history column - why Sullivan’s Island has no trees.

In today’s age of Loran and satellite navigation, it is difficult to imagine how chancy finding your way from point A to point B was back in the age of sail. Sea captains had charts that were hardly accurate. They set their courses by stars, by the compass and sextant and, when all else failed, by dead reckoning.

Given such rudimentary navigational aids, in the early 1700s it was sometimes hit-and-miss for vessels sailing the Carolina coast. Charles Town was already a bustling seaport and vessels were calling from all around the globe.

The harbor needed to be marked somehow so it would be easily discernible to the ships at sea.

At first a wooden lookout tower was erected on Sullivan’s Island, a lighthouse of sorts with a lamp atop which burned “oakem and pitch.” But in 1700 this tower was “overthrown to the ground” by a severe hurricane.

This caused “several vessels for the want thereof, to their great disappointment and detriment of their owners,” to miss the harbor. Thus an act was passed to make the harbor entrance distinct. Entitled an “Act to Make Sullivan’s Island More Remarkable to Mariners,” it ordered that a more solid, Martello-type tower be built of brick, “Twenty five foot Diamitir at Bottome and Twelve feete, Diamiter at Topp, with Two flores and that the foundation to be... secured with Pyles.”

While this tower (which may count as the first lighthouse ever erected in South Carolina) was being constructed, it was still necessary for mariners to have a landmark.

The solution was perhaps the first radical change brought upon the island’s natural environment. It was ordered that, “all the underwoods... and such other of the standing and growing trees... be cut down and cleared... and [only] the remarkable trees left standing in such form and figure as they most conduce to the better distinguishing of said Island.”

So how could ships at sea distinguish Charles Town’s harbor? What made it different from all the other inlets along the coast?

Mariners looked for the island without any trees. It was an ingenious solution, yet it marked the end of the island’s original maritime forest.

If there is a description of what the island looked like prior to 1700, I have yet to find it. One can assume, however, that the island was similar to other barrier islands and had a substantial growth of pines, oaks and other trees. After the island was clear-cut (and it seems likely that they continued to do so in ensuing years to guide incoming vessels), the island remained devoid of trees. When William Moultrie was given the job of building a fortification on the island in 1775, he had few materials at hand except for palmetto trees. That problem became a blessing in disguise, for during the battle of Fort Sullivan on June 28, 1776, the spongy palmetto logs literally soaked in the shot and shells bombarding the little fort.

In the 1790s the island started being used as a place of resort for Charlestonians fleeing the hot summers and diseases that plagued the warmer months. While the island’s breezes were refreshing and the air considered “salubrious,” the lack of trees sometimes made for less than desirable remarks. When the French botanist André Michaux visited Sullivan’s Island in 1802 he wrote disparagingly that the island was “dry and parched up” and “bereft of vegetation.”

Likewise, British author Anne Jemima Clough recalled summers spent on the island in the late 1820s, writing, “The whole island was like a great sandbank, with little growing naturally on it but a few palmettos and low woods of myrtle.”

Perhaps most famously, Edgar Allan Poe, who was stationed at Fort Moultrie in 1827, wrote that the island “consists of little else than sea sand… The vegetation, as might be supposed, is scant, or least dwarfish. No trees of any magnitude are to be seen.”

If there is a cautionary tale to be gleaned from this, it is that we need to be cautious about what we do to our natural landscape. Indeed, one decision made over 300 years ago left a place, Sullivan’s Island, permanently changed. If you’re thinking about cutting down a tree, perhaps you might want to think twice.

(Suzannah Smith Miles is a writer and Lowcountry and Civil War historian.)

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