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Sullivan’s Island History

By Mike Walsh for The Island Eye News

Officers’ Row, seen from beach. The photo was taken around 1910, when the homes were on front beach. (Photo from The National Archives)

By the time you read this, I hope the craziness of the political season is behind us, and we can turn our attention once again to more important things – like island history. Battery Gadsden Cultural Center is always flattered when someone looks to us as a source for historical information. After all, it’s part of our mission to preserve Sullivan’s Island’s culture of history and art.

Two remaining riprap boulders along Atlantic Avenue on Sullivan’s Island.

An islander recently wrote and asked the following question: “I was showing off our island to a friend recently, and we walked Atlantic Avenue at Station 17. We noticed that one entire block of homes had ‘jetty rocks’ marking the front and back of the properties. Nowhere else has them, just that block. Why? Where did they come from? I know they have been there forever. Was that storm protection? Fort-involved? It has me quite curious. Hope you can help.”

As island historian Roy Williams tells us, Sullivan’s Island had two consistent purposes during its first 250 years following European settlement – health, that is, the refreshing sea breeze as a respite from the unhealthy environment of the peninsula, and military. In fact, the potential military needs for the island were so vital that until the mid-20th century, landowners could not even get clear title to their property. Your land could always be taken out of military necessity, leaving you with the choice of either moving your house or seeing it torn down after the Army requisitioned the land.

That’s exactly what happened between 1895 and 1897 when the Spanish American war was looming. The War Department decided to expand Fort Moultrie from the old fort with a few acres of associated land into Fort Moultrie Military Reservation by taking over more than 300 acres of the island by right of eminent domain. This included for the most part everything from Station 12 to Station 18. Rapid construction of military facilities soon began. This, of course, included the all-important coastal gun batteries that dot our coastline even today – Battery Capron (now the Mound behind the town park), Battery Jasper, Battery Logan, Battery Gadsden and Battery Thomson. But it also meant building all the support facilities necessary for a new, major military reservation, including housing for all ranks.

A little-remembered fact is that at the turn of the 20th century, the United States was taking part in what was known as the City Beautiful Movement, a philosophy of architecture and urban planning that not only introduced beauty and grandeur into the landscape but also taught that such beauty would create moral and civic virtue among people exposed to it. According to Wikipedia, “advocates … believed that such beautification could promote a harmonious social order that would increase the quality of life.” Surprisingly, even the Army, not an institution known for its attention to aesthetics, took part in the movement as Fort Moultrie Military Reservation was built.

While there are other nods to the City Beautiful Movement on the former Army property, none is perhaps more noticeable and appreciated than the 11 classic homes along Ion Avenue, extending from Station 17 to Station 18, known locally as Senior Officers’ Row. These beautiful houses were built between 1902 and 1905, but what few people realize is that when they were built, they were on front beach. There was nothing between them and the Atlantic except for a wide expanse of sand.

To protect both the old and the new ocean-facing parts of the newly expanded military reservation, Chief Engineer Frederic Abbot began an ambitious program of storm surge protection with the construction of a timber seawall, which was then further protected from the ocean by an 8-foot-wide riprap wall consisting of huge, irregularly placed granite boulders. Initially stretching 440 feet in front of Battery Jasper, when the military reservation expanded to include Battery Logan and the area from Station 16 to Station 18, this same protective structure was extended to more than 3,000 feet, encompassing the area in front of Senior Officers’ Row. Eventually, another 1,000 feet was added in front of Battery Gadsden and Battery Thomson, completing one of the most impressive storm surge control projects in our history.

Of course, the timber seawall has long since disappeared, but the giant boulders remain. Much land has accreted over the last century, and, since the fort was decommissioned in 1947, three rows of houses and a “new” street, Atlantic Avenue, have appeared. But as we walk down Atlantic from Station 16 to Station 18 and notice those huge rocks that have generally been worked into the surrounding homes’ landscaping, it reminds us that standing right there a century ago, we would have been dipping our toes in the surf.

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