By Dylan Sharek
There used to be a gangly oak tree in my Aunt Maureen’s backyard. No matter what time of day or the weather, you could find me, my sister, and cousins amidst its gnarled limbs.
The tree consumed much of our summers, and our activities revolving around the endless hours of innocent fun that it provided.
Just off Middle Street and Station 21 on Sullivan’s Island, there’s a landmark that harkens back to that sort of playground fun. To many on the Island, that place is known simply as “the Mound”, a mysterious, 30 foot anomaly hidden among the Town’s sea level streets.
On any given day, countless children can be seen climbing the Mound’s overgrown base and battling its steep, weeded slopes. Once at the top, there’s no easy way down.
“Ow, ow, ow, ow,” four year old Landon Fleming muttered as he slid down the mound on his rear, the ride of choice when there’s no leftover cardboard slabs to be found at the foot of the steep hill. Randall Fleming, a Charleston local, brought Landon and his brother, Harrison, age five, to the Sullivan’s Island Park for some traditional fun Wednesday.
“Come on guys, y’all want to play in the bamboo forest?” he asked when they reached the bottom. As the boys hurried to get lost in the bamboo groves which occupy much of the right side of the mound, Mr. Fleming headed off after them. “Have a good day,” he said, smiling over his shoulder.
Formerly an American army ammunition store and mortar battery, the area now known as the Mound barely resembles its original appearance on the Island. Constructed in 1898 for $175,000, the earth and reinforced concrete structure was part of the Endicott System of seacoast defense and was active from the outset of the Spanish American War through much of World War II. Named after Capt. Allyn K. Capron, a member of the U.S. Volunteer Calvary who was killed in action during the Spanish American clash, the embattlement never saw any action.
The grassy area atop the Mound, where sightseers now register amazing views of the Charleston Harbor, the Ben Sawyer Bridge, and Middle Street, was once a man-made pit in which 16 twelve inch mortars were housed. Branching from the cavernous center, offshoot tunnels stored ammunition and shells.
In 1909, the battery was split into two, the northern half becoming Battery Butler, dedicated to founding father Pierce Butler, and the southern half remaining Battery Capron. It acted as a command bunker for most of the next decade, before half of its mortars were stripped and scrapped in 1919. At the time of its decommissioning in 1942, the battery acted primarily as a ballistics training facility. In 1947, Battery Capron became property of the State before officially being handed over to the island in 1975.
After the fort’s retirement, the oddest thing happened: people started playing on it; sliding down its hills on cardboard, exploring the bamboo forests that slowly began consuming its perimeter, and enjoying the bird’s eye views it afforded. There was a ditch at its base where children would set up ramps and attempt their best Evel Knievel on their bicycles. When the cavern in its center was fenced off, it immediately became a climb that had to be made by adventuresome children.
William “Red” Wood, who was a member of the Sullivan’s Island Town Council for 30 years, has seen the battery through all the phases of its lifecycle.
“In the early days, my wife’s family used to go to the mortar battery during hurricanes to protect themselves in the tunnels … But I can also remember my kid used to slide down that thing all the time. I even made him a sled,” said Wood.
And when the Town received an opportunity to commandeer an old train caboose from the Railroad Society, the foot of the battery was the natural choice for its resting place.
However, with the development of the area surrounding the battery, more children began arriving and playing around the old structures, and injuries around the battery increased.
“Some kids were doing things they shouldn’t be doing. We couldn’t keep them out of the tunnels …one kid fell in [the mortar pit],” Wood recalls.
And then the train caboose slowly turned from an homage to the Town’s early railroad history to nothing more than a makeshift restroom and smoking lounge. Some time right before Hurricane Hugo, the decision was made to raze the caboose in order to curb some of the loitering and injury issues.
Still, the injuries occurred. And in the 1990s, an unconfirmed rumor of a sexual assault
within the battery’s tunnels spurred further precautions. In the late 1990s, the tunnels and mortar pits at Battery Capron and Battery Butler were finally filled.
There’s a lot to be discovered at “the Mound”; mystery for those who don’t know about the unusual hill in the middle of a low-lying island, and there’s history for those who do.
In a world where carefree fun is increasingly hard to find, the Mound will continue to thrive, overgrowth and all.