At just 75, Myrtle Beach has come a long way in a short lifetime
Myrtle Beach will likely see more than 15 million visitors in 2013. With these annual tourism numbers the envy of resort towns around the country, it’s hard to believe that present day Myrtle Beach is just 75 years old, having been incorporated as a town on March 12, 1938. Much of the city’s growth has come in the last 30 years, making Myrtle Beach little more than a baby in town years. What alignment of the stars made it possible for the city to know such prosperity? Opinions vary, but a few key moments in the hundred or so years since the railroad first came to town have shaped the future of not only the Grand Strand, but also the entire state of South Carolina.
Once known only to a handful of explorers and settlers, and for an overnight stay by the first President of the United States, what we now know as Myrtle Beach remained a rarely visited wilderness until 1900. Meanwhile, nearby Charleston, Conway, Georgetown and Wilmington had been vibrant cities for centuries. Their residents gave little thought to the windswept vistas, the pine barrens and the endless sands that made up most of the shoreline of Long Bay and had no idea that the tiny Horry County settlement would one day become one of the best-known beach towns in the world.
On March 12, 2013, the city threw itself a 75th birthday party with about 150 in attendance. Mayor John Rhodes and members of the City Council spoke, more than 100 citizens and visitors ate cake, drank punch, reminisced, and considered just how far Myrtle Beach has moved since those earliest days when New Town (later Myrtle Beach) was barely a blip on the radar.
Small Town U.S.A.?
Myrtle Beach was once the stuff of old black-and-white TV shows—Mayberry By The Sea. Quiet streets, kids on bikes, the ol’ movie house, independently owned corner drugstores—the nostalgic, idealized Rockwellian past that still charms us. But that old vision of Myrtle Beach hasn’t been seen for at least 40 years, except for teenagers still cruising the boulevard and the presence of the old downtown honkytonk, The Bowery. Despite the area’s continuing population growth, Myrtle Beach is at its heart still a small town.
To many, Myrtle Beach is a small Southern town, but those under the age of around 50 tend to see Myrtle Beach as not quite the quintessential Southern city, though not too far removed, either. They see Myrtle Beach as a hybrid—cosmopolitan, with a lot of ethnic diversity and influx from around the U.S., especially the Northeast. Here Yankee, Confederate and international non-native residents work and play side-by-side.
Now, at the cusp of summer 2013, Myrtle Beach is arguably one of the busiest places on the East Coast and one of the best-known beach towns in the world. With South Carolina once the wealthiest of the original 13 British Colonies, Myrtle Beach’s slow start is a curious case in contradictions. So what took so long?
A River Runs Through It
The area now known as Myrtle Beach, and much of Long Bay, was a difficult region to visit in the early days of colonization and up through the beginning of the 20th century. Without bridges and railroads, what little traveling to the area that was done was by foot or horse, even then with some difficulty. In the late 1700s, what we now call U.S. 17 was barely more than a coastal footpath, and it required portaging through and over numerous rivers and swashes, as was noted by President George Washington.
Legend has it that Washington himself may have named an area of what is now North Myrtle Beach “Windy Hill” as he stood upon a dune on a blustery spring day in 1791. He made reports of the area in his diaries, explaining, “The country from Wilmington through which [Kings Road] passes, is pine barrens with very few inhabitants. On April 27 lodged at Mr. Vereen’s. We were entertained, and very kindly, without being able to make compensation.” The Vereen home was reported to be near the intersection of U.S. 17 and what is now Lake Arrowhead Road. “April 28. Mr. Vereen piloted us across the swash (which at high water is impassable).” Washington was probably referring to Singleton Swash near the Dunes Golf and Beach Club in Myrtle Beach. Washington goes on to mention stays at George Pawley’s home, Dr. Flagg’s home and the homes of other early settlers whose names are well known to this day.
Historian Dr. Walter Edgar, retired University of South Carolina professor and longtime host of the popular Public Radio program “Walter Edgar’s Journal,” has been visiting the Grand Strand since the early 1960s. He notes that the modern-day concept of traveling to the beach for leisure was not so popular in the 19th century. “What did [the area now known as Myrtle Beach] have a lot of?” asked Dr. Edgar rhetorically. “Sand. But that beautiful white sand wasn’t really good for anything. Tourists of the day went to the mountains. The idea of families going to the beach in a casual, inexpensive way was not something most people were thinking about in the 19th century,” though that was beginning to change with resorts like Coney Island in New York City seeing large summer crowds at the beach by 1850.
Though the Grand Strand would eventually gain popularity with tourists, the late 19th century community of Withers, then New Town, and later Myrtle Beach, would have to be patient even as Florida and the Northeast had already begun to see large beach-going crowds.
If the railroad settled the West, it also spawned the growth of the Grand Strand. In 1899, construction began on the first rail line from Conway’s well-established inland rail system to what would become Myrtle Beach. On May 1, 1900, the steam locomotive Black Maria made its inaugural run to the beach and would start hauling families from Conway to the oceanfront. The historic Myrtle Beach Train Depot at 851 Broadway Street was not built until 1937 and was saved from the wrecking ball around 2000, reopening as a renovated community center and meeting hall in 2004.
The arrival of the first large groups of tourists, made up of the families and employees of the Burroughs & Collins Company, would come for a day of fishing and the sunny seashore, heading home again in the evening. In the early 1900s, because the railroad could also deliver construction materials, some of these first tourists decided to build summer cottages along the dunes at that magical place where the ocean meets the sand.
Around 1900, New Town really began to take form. Franklin Burroughs of the Burroughs & Collins Company envisioned a seaside resort, which was the primary reason for his investment in the railroad. Though he never saw it completed (he died in 1897), his family continued the project and opened the Seaside Inn in 1901, Myrtle Beach’s first oceanfront inn. A year earlier, Mrs. F.E. Burroughs—known as “Miss Addie”—the widow of the developer, won a local contest to name the slowly growing seaside town. Her winning entry was “Myrtle Beach,” named for the wax myrtles that were common in the region.
Though the railroad was the first significant tool in the development of the area, several additional events have helped shape Myrtle Beach throughout the past 75 years.
Myrtle Beach’s Visionaries
Long before the era of the domination of mom & pop motels led into to the high-rise vacation condos of today, a few early investors saw the potential of Myrtle Beach as a playground for the rich and famous and the blue collar equally. That diversity among Myrtle Beach’s population and visitors exists to this day, but one gentleman, some 80 years ago, had something even grander in mind.
In the late 1920s a resort named Arcady was created as a golf club, riding stable and inn, now called the Pine Lakes Country Club. In 1930, at the onset of the Great Depression, John T. Woodside, of Greenville, N.C., opened his magnificent and opulent Ocean Forest Hotel near present day Porcher Drive at Poinsett Road as the crowning jewel of Arcady. It featured a ten-story central tower, two five-story wings, stables, pools, tennis courts and a kind of extravagance not known before or since in Myrtle Beach. No Hawaiian shirts, board shorts and flip flops for this crowd.Gentlemen were required to wear tuxedos to dinner, the Grand Ballroom featured Czechoslovakian crystal chandeliers, noted Hollywood celebrities visited and performed, and the hotel was considered the finest from New York to Miami.
Woodsides’s unlucky Depression-era timing meant trouble for the hotel and associated golf course country club. He was forced into bankruptcy almost immediately after opening. A group of private investors purchased the property and the hotel managed to remain open some 44 years. But by the 1960s the hotel had fallen into serious disrepair, was closed in the early 1970s and was demolished in 1974.
Nearly every resident and visitor old enough to comprehend what was happening remembers demolition day. “I remember my mother, who used to dance there, cried and cried and cried,” said Gina Brown, a lifelong resident of Myrtle Beach who works as an Assistant Vice President at First Citizens Bank.
“I was eight years old,” said Brown, who, along with her mother and countless onlookers, stood in disbelief that Friday the 13th in September of 1974. “I had stayed home sick from school that day and we went to watch. It was very sad.”
Prior to Woodside’s ill-fated and massive investment, other businessmen had better luck by coming earlier to the seashore. In 1912, Simeon B. Chapin, the son of a wealthy Chicago businessman, teamed up with the Burroughs family of Conway to form Myrtle Beach Farms Company. Some 80 years later, in 1990, Chapin merged with Burroughs & Collins to become Burroughs & Chapin, arguably the most important and influential developer of Myrtle Beach. B&C is the company completely or partially behind Broadway at the Beach, Coastal Grand Mall, Myrtle Waves, The Pavilion, The Grande Dunes, eight golf courses, five hotels, 11 retail centers, The Ripken Experience and more than 20,000 acres of forest managed for the paper and timber industries. But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the company.
Another tragic loss of an iconic Myrtle Beach landmark came when the Pavilion, the city’s first and best-known amusement park and oceanfront arcade, was demolished in 2006–2007 after its owners, Burroughs & Chapin, said it could no longer afford its operation. The Pavilion’s oceanfront building was the third in the same location and was built in 1948 after the first two burned. The company built the last Pavilion from reinforced concrete and steel. Though it withstood Hurricane Hazel’s wrath in 1954, ultimately it could not withstand the march of time and the bulldozer.
While the Ocean Forest Hotel may have lost its battle with the economy and shortsighted developers who couldn’t see its potential value, its historic golf club lives on. As the first and the oldest golf club in the region, Pine Lakes Country Club, now on the National Register of Historic Places, prompted the growth of an industry that no one could have guessed would dominate the region in the way it has.
With the Pine Lakes Country Club (originally the Ocean Forest Country Club and Inn) opening in 1927, this “Granddaddy” of golf courses started a trend in and around Myrtle Beach that continued unabated through the late 1990s when the Grand Strand touted nearly 120 active golf courses. That number is now around 100.
While the Grand Strand has certainly seen boom years, none of this dramatic growth would have been possible without the help of one of the most famous and controversial politicians in U.S. history—South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond. He served in the Senate for 48 years and died in 2003, five months short of his 101st birthday.
“Before Federal Flood Insurance, people were reluctant to build on the coast,” says Dr. Edgar. “They couldn’t afford the potential loss. The original building was haphazard. You had mom & mop motels and cottages, but until the 1960s and the advent of Federal Flood Insurance, there wasn’t a lot of building. Senator Strom Thurmond was one of the sponsors of the Federal Flood Insurance legislation, and the entire coast owes him a debt of gratitude for that effort. Not too many people could afford to build before the insurance was there to protect them. After Hurricane Hazel in 1954, people snapped up property for a song.”
In the 1960s, as infrastructure improved and insured developments began to pop up, more and more visitors began to discover the charms of Myrtle Beach, bringing with them a need for accommodations and food. Real estate developers, hoteliers and restaurateurs began to descend upon Myrtle Beach en masse, including the family of Dino Drosas, co-owner of the Flamingo Grill and the recently-closed Cagney’s restaurant, which just went dark after a 38-year run on Restaurant Row. Twelve-year-old Dino and his family moved here from Pennsylvania in 1953 to help a cousin in need.
“My cousin owned two restaurants,” said Drosas, “one called the Seaside Restaurant, and the other The 8th Avenue Grill, and it become too much for him. So we moved here to help. Eventually my dad and another gentleman built Mammy’s Kitchen. I went to high school here, then off to college, and swore I’d never get into the restaurant business. But then Dino Thompson and I opened Cagney’s in 1976. In those days you would open on Good Friday, stay open on weekends until June, then stay open every day until Labor Day. Then you’d close it up and you were done for the season.”
With food playing a major role in satisfying the throngs of visitors, Myrtle Beach began developing a reputation for its pancake breakfast houses and Calabash-style seafood buffets, followed by both the chains and the fine dining. But was there an older food tradition tied directly to the Myrtle Beach? Local food writer Becky Billingsley answers with an unequivocal, “Yes!”
“Myrtle Beach’s culinary history comes from the ocean and from outer reaches of Horry County,” says Billingsley, whose new book on the topic will be released in July by The History Press of Charleston. The title, A Culinary History of Myrtle Beach and the Grand Strand: Fish & Grits, Oyster Roasts and Boiled Peanuts, nearly says it all. “The food came from where it would grow well—[the inland farms, where they grew] sweet potatoes, collards, some corn, field peas,” she continues. “The descendants of slaves and the Gullah Geechee culture hold claim to recipes from those foods, and they inherited some of their traditions first from the Native Americans.”
If it sounds like soul food, it is. Locally, Big Mike’s Soul Food on 16th Avenue North in Myrtle Beach carries on the true traditions of hyper-local farm-to-table cooking that might be traced back hundreds of years. The restaurant is owned by Myrtle Beach City Councilman Michael Chestnut. His is one of several local restaurants where Myrtle Beach cuisine is a regular, everyday menu item, even if it’s not identified as such.
Eating out is good for the soul and helps to create sunny dispositions. But what happens when the skies aren’t so sunny?
A history of Myrtle Beach and the Grand Strand would not be complete without mention of its most infamous storms and of its great fortune in avoiding countless others.
The oldest major storm of reliable record occurred in 1822 and swept the home of R.F. Withers—for whom the Withers Swash is named—into the sea, drowning 18 family members inside. Another struck the Grand Strand in 1854, and while lesser storms came and went, the next and still-largest storm to make a direct impact was Hurricane Hazel, 100 years later in 1954.
On the morning of October 15, 1954, Hazel came to town after having already killed thousands in the Caribbean. The Category 4 storm had 200 mph winds and a 17-foot storm surge. Remarkably, only one death was attributed along the Grand Strand, the site of landfall. Hazel wreaked havoc through the Carolinas, up the Mid-Atlantic states into central New York, and was particularly damaging to Toronto.
“Hazel leveled everything,” remembers Drosas. The storm hit just one year after his family had relocated, but they, like many others, stuck it out. “It was bad, but it didn’t destroy the city.”
Pre-dating Federal insurance, many who lost property in the Myrtle Beach area could not rebuild. The damage caused by the storm cleared property for the first wave of low-rise hotels, thus creating the first real significant tourism and development boom. The next 34 years came and went without a significant storm, encouraging the building and tourism expansion that went uninterrupted at a break-neck speed.
Then Came Hugo
When the gales of September came calling, as they did on September 22, 1989, the Grand Strand was in for a shock.
Hurricane Hugo was born over the Cape Verde Islands of the Eastern Atlantic. After hitting Saint Croix, Guadeloupe and Puerto Rico, Hugo weakened to a Category 2 storm, but then re-intensified as it came ashore between McClellanville and Charleston as a Category 4. One hundred miles north of the eye wall, the site of the most intense winds, the Grand Strand and Myrtle Beach received serious damage with the loss of homes and businesses. Some 10,000 acres of the Francis Marion Forest were destroyed and represented enough lost timber to build 650,000 homes.
As the 11th costliest storm in U.S. history (some $7 billion), Hugo is the freshest in memory of locals who witnessed first-hand the devastation. It’s a reminder that the potential for real trouble comes every year between June and December.
While storms are something most locals don’t actively worry about, all keep an eye to the sky, just in case.
The Next 75
If Myrtle Beach’s health as a community is based upon the past evidence of surviving storms and economic instability, its future is bright. Mayor John Rhodes said as much in his remarks at the March 12 birthday party. “I believe sometime in the next 75 years we will be the number one beach resort in the U.S.”
Though the city and the region are warned by experts that a lack of economic diversity hangs overhead like a looming storm cloud, small businesses march on. It seems that just about every week a new restaurant pops up somewhere. Residential and commercial real estate development is making a comeback. The population grows, new attractions and shows open each season, and improvements to the infrastructure seem to be keeping pace with the demand. But still many ask, “Is something missing?”
“We need an Amazon or a Boeing, or some really large employer for some stability beyond tourism,” says Brown, who has seen firsthand, through the banking industry, what a recession can do to homeowners and small business owners. While it’s possible some major manufacturer could set up shop nearby, Myrtle Beach’s livelihood seems irrevocably linked to tourism, which remains the state’s greatest economic driver.
Much has been left unsaid in this brief history of Myrtle Beach. Iconic landmarks have been overlooked, generational family tales and ties vital to the story of the city remain untold. Venerable places such as The Family Kingdom, Broadway at the Beach and the area theaters could all have singular books written to tell their stories. The infamous motorcycle rallies, the failed Hard Rock Park, snowbirds, video gambling, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, Coastal Carolina University, The Market Common and so much more, are all an important part of the Myrtle Beach story.
Only time will tell what the next generations, in 2088, might have to add about the previous 75 years during Myrtle Beach’s sesquicentennial celebration. They’ll probably eat cake, drink punch, and reminisce about the good ol’ days in Myrtle Beach, wondering what the new millennium, the year 3000, might bring.
Myrtle Beach By The Numbers
15 Million The approximate number of visitors who come to the Grand Strand every year.
27,109 The population within Myrtle Beach city limits, according to the 2010 census.
329,449 The combined population of the greater Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach and Conway areas. (Also from 2010 census.)
2,800 The annual average number of sunlight hours in Myrtle Beach
1,047,732 The number of square feet of retail space in the Coastal Grand Mall
.538 The length, in miles, of the Myrtle Beach Speedway
105 The temperature in degrees of the hottest day on record, August 22, 1983
4 The temperature in degrees of the coldest day on record, January 21, 1985
1.2 The length in miles of the Myrtle Beach Boardwalk
60 The approximate length in miles of the Grand Strand, which stretches from Little River to Georgetown
$2 The price of an oceanfront room at the Seaside Inn in 1901
42 The number of glass-enclosed temperature controlled gondolas in the Myrtle Beach SkyWheel
312 The number of acres making up the Myrtle Beach State Park
$7 billion – The estimated cost of Hurricane Hugo
In 1901, Burroughs & Collins built the beach’s first hotel, the Seaside Inn. Around that time, oceanfront lots sold for $25.