No doubt about it, Murrells Inlet is legendary. It’s the place where hushpuppies were invented, where Blackbeard and other pirates of the high seas stashed their ill-gotten booty. It’s the place where local and visitor alike have reported the chance meeting with one of the Inlet’s local ghosts.History in our community began writing itself long before this area was officially named Murrells Inlet by the post office in 1913. The origin of this name remains a mystery with theories resting in passed-down legends of pirates and fishermen and incomplete records of landowners, plats and maps.The pages of Murrells Inlet’s past are graced with footprints of Native American tribes, 16th century Spanish explorers and English colonists in the 17th century. In the 1700s and 1800s, large land tracts were cultivated into successful rice plantations. By 1850, almost 47 million pounds of rice were produced in the Waccamaw Neck, an area that includes Murrells Inlet. South Carolina rice planters were far wealthier and more powerful than the tobacco, sugar and cotton plantation owners of the southeast. One rice planter, Joseph Alston, even became South Carolina’s Governor. Also in the 1800s, pirates sailed our coastline and hid in the Inlet’s winding creeks, waiting to plunder England-bound ships. People who summered in Murrells Inlet in the 1800s generally traveled to Conway or Georgetown by train, then picked up a steamboat that docked at the Wachesaw river landing. A horse and buggy or oxen cart carried travelers and their belongings to their cottages. The river steamboats were known for serving excellent food. Many of the steamboats’ cooks settled in Murrells Inlet and opened their own restaurants, giving the area a reputation for savory cuisine long ago.The Civil War came to Murrells Inlet’s shores in 1863. Union warships attacked the Confederacy’s blockade-runners that used the Inlet as a port to sneak cotton and other products to England in exchange for war materials, food and medicine. The war caused the decline of the rice culture. Though some rice plantations partially recovered, they could not survive the devastating hurricanes that followed. By 1916, the last remaining commercial rice grower was out of business.By then, commercial fishing was a popular industry with catches shipped north on schooners. Recreational fishing also became part of the landscape. In 1914, captain-led fishing excursions out of the Inlet on 20-foot skiffs cost $5 per person for a day trip.
At the height of the Great Depression, Murrells Inlet’s economy was spurred when Archer Milton Huntington from New York, spent millions of dollars to develop his 9,000-acre homestead and gardens. He hired local brick masons, painters, landscapers, carpenters and other craftsmen to create his dream of a Spanish castle. He even built a church, medical clinic and community center for the residents of Sandy Island, an island community between the Pee Dee and Waccamaw rivers. The Huntington home, Atalaya, was built with 22 fireplaces and 36 rooms, one of which was an oyster-shucking room. In their outdoor statuary gardens, his wife, Anna Hyatt Huntington, displayed her sculpting work, for which she was known nationwide. Theirs was a private estate until Mr. Huntington’s death in 1955. Today, Atalaya is part of Huntington Beach State Park and their garden, now Brookgreen Gardens, is the largest showcase of American figurative sculpture in the country, displaying 68 of Mrs. Huntington’s pieces, including the Fighting Stallions at the entrance.
More restaurants, marinas and private homes have emerged in our South Carolina village, but residents are not quick to forget what drew them here in the first place. Front-porch tales, ghost stories and a variety of local tours keep alive the history so deeply rooted in our marsh creeks, sandy banks and river landings. Names of local streets and neighborhoods are reminiscent of the people, plantations and cottages of yesteryear: Hermitage, Sunnyside, Vaux Hall and Wachesaw are but a few of the nostalgic familiarities that make Murrells Inlet the quaint seaside community it is today.
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