Coastal Heritage Magazine
S.C.’s Working Waterfronts: Fishing Villages Evolve
Working waterfronts are living entities, shaped by many variables. In South Carolina, the communities around those waterfronts are taking stock of recent changes and deciding how best to move forward.
Coastal Heritage Magazine
Volume 29 – Number 3
Fishing Villages Evolve
A shrimp boat rigging silhouetted against a brilliant red and yellow sunset serves as the iconic image of South Carolina’s working waterfronts, found on everything from the walls of the state’s welcome centers to the official logos for coastal municipalities.
Fishing vessels merited icon status in communities like Murrells Inlet, Georgetown, McClellanville, Mount Pleasant, and Port Royal for the second half of the 20th century. But those communities have transitioned in recent years from traditional fishing villages to more contemporary versions of working waterfronts. In changes sparked by explosive coastal population growth, the waterways once dominated by commercial fishing boats now are filled with pleasure boats, kayaks, and jet skis. Waterfronts once rimmed by processing plants and ice houses now teem with restaurants and high-end housing.
In general, this is nothing new. Working waterfronts always have been living entities, evolving with the economic, political, and ecological tides. Commercial shrimping on big boats didn’t take off as a profession in South Carolina until the late 1930s. Entering the 20th century, the iconic image of the working waterfront might have been flat barges full of oysters. For much of the 19th century, it would have been large ships laden with timber.
Change along working waterfronts is inevitable, but many communities now aim to guide those changes to fit their desired personality. If a community wants commercial fishing to remain a major component of the waterfront, how can that be accomplished? If the commercial fishing component is going to diminish, what replaces it?
To facilitate that kind of planning, researchers from S.C. Sea Grant Consortium and Clemson University organized public information-gathering sessions in five communities in 2015. The effort brought together people from diverse fields – including commercial fishing, outdoor recreation, urban planning, and tourism – to gauge the current state and desired future path for Murrells Inlet, Georgetown, McClellanville, Mount Pleasant, and Port Royal.
The research indicates the five working waterfront communities face similar challenges with their own unique circumstances. What follows is a snapshot of each, with the caveat that things continue to change, almost daily.
Murrells Inlet: Restaurants, Recreational Variety
“Altogether, maybe three dozen cottages were what Murrells Inlet consisted of back then [in the 1920s], and these were scattered along about four miles of salt marsh shore and connected up for the most part by an oyster-shell lane running along the bluff – a lane so narrow a buggy, wagon, or automobile couldn’t pass, and so narrow my future husband drove off into the marsh when he was learning to drive. … Beside the residences we also had a couple of boardinghouses and a couple of restaurants which were already famous for serving seafood, which Murrells Inlet is even more famous for today.”
—“Heaven Is a Beautiful Place,” by Genevieve C. Peterkin, 2000
Genevieve C. Peterkin grew up in Murrells Inlet and reveled in telling stories of its past while sitting on her back porch. She died in 2011, living long enough to see another narrow, oyster-studded lane rescue her beloved town’s working waterfront from an economic downturn in the late 1990s.
Many of the restaurants on Main Creek were struggling. Myrtle Beach vacationers had plenty of restaurant options. Why should they make the drive down to Murrells Inlet? Community leaders formed a task force, dubbed Murrells Inlet 2007, aimed at sprucing up the waterfront’s infrastructure and image. Their crowning achievement was the Marshwalk, a belt of pavement and boardwalks on the marsh side of the restaurants.
It was paid for with proceeds from Sunday alcohol sales permits and contributions from restaurants and other businesses. The first section of the Marshwalk opened in 1998 and transformed the working waterfront’s ambiance. Before or after eating, visitors stroll along the marsh, watch the wildlife, and check out the fishing boats on the adjacent docks.
But they’re seeing fewer of those boats these days. The dock space once used exclusively by commercial and charter fishing boats now is shared by companies that rent jet skis, kayaks, and standup paddleboards. Boats that used to bring in fish now take out tourists for scuba diving, wildlife viewing, or pirate history tours.
Tom Swatzel first worked as a deckhand on local boats while in high school and later owned Capt. Dick’s Marina and several charter boats that could handle up to 150 people. Limits on the catch allowed for certain species and competition for tourism dollars hurt the charter industry in the 1990s, Swatzel says. He sold off most of his boats and, eventually, the marina. “People would rather parasail or jet ski or go on dolphin tours,” he says. “That’s what has made up for the loss of income from fishing. There’s a lot more diversification in terms of waterfront activity.”
Wayne Mershon runs a commercial seafood business supplied by boats that dock in Murrells Inlet. He’s seen the number of commercial fishing boats in the inlet drop from 25 to six in about 20 years. Fuel and ice, once available at processing plants on the docks, now have to be brought in by trucks. But the boats that remain pull in enough fish for Mershon’s business to survive. “The Marshwalk inconvenienced us at first until we learned how to use it,” Mershon says.
One business that provides dock space for commercial fishing boats is Drunken Jack’s, where owner Al Hitchcock worries about the future of that connection. “We need to maintain the fishing like we have it now and not let it slip back anymore,” he says. “Without that local seafood, the waterfront restaurants wouldn’t be anything more than the chain restaurants out on the bypass.”
Commerical fishing boat operators wish they had more than the small processing facility at the Wicked Tuna restaurant on the waterfront. They also say that long delays in dredging make it hard to get in and out of the channel at low tide, and thus favor the operation of smaller boats and jet skis. Laverick says dredging would help his business, too, with more space for everybody in a wider channel. As it is, his company shuts down jet ski rentals on the busiest holiday weekends, fearing for the safety of inexperienced riders among the crowds of pleasure boaters.
Swatzel thinks the Murrells Inlet working waterfront balance is about right—some commercial fishing, mixed with a lot of recreational activity, with the big restaurants serving as the financial base. “The problem that the area faces now is dealing with the success,” Swatzel says. “If you come down here in the summer, you can’t find a parking spot.”
Georgetown: Tourism Grows More Important
“Today the great Clyde liner ‘New York’ steams easily up the river, and up to within a stone’s throw of the main street of the city. The little sailing vessels that aided in the commerce of the older days are still plying a profitable trade on the river to points in the heart of the cotton and the timber country. … In spite of harrowing experiences in times of civil and external strife, in which houses have been destroyed and men have perished, and her wealth has been reduced to a pitiful living amount, George-town has risen out of her troubles serene, hopeful and finally successful.”
—Charleston News & Courier, December 18, 1905, on Georgetown’s centennial
Georgetown has been the second most diverse working waterfront in South Carolina, behind the much larger port of Charleston. Boat building, commercial fishing, heavy industry, retail shops, and shipping co-existed while riding ebbs and flows. Now, local residents wonder if that diversification will survive, or even if it’s desirable.
Georgetown’s commercial fishing and shipping businesses are limping as they attempt to clear economic hurdles not entirely of their making. The last rites have been read over the body of heavy industry on the waterfront, with the closing of the ArcelorMittal steel mill in 2015. Tourism-related businesses, however, thrive, and they appear to represent the future.
Mayor Jack Scoville isn’t ready to write off the struggling sectors, but he acknowledges “the working waterfront here is in a transition period.”
That’s been the case since European explorers first settled in the area in the 1600s. Those sailors made the 12-mile journey through Winyah Bay to what is now called the Sampit River to anchor small sailing vessels away from the vagaries of the open ocean. Transitions along the Georgetown working waterfront have been sparked by wars, economic downturns, the deepening of the shipping channel, and the arrival of Atlantic Coast Lumber Company in the early 1900s, International Paper in 1937, and Georgetown Steel in 1969.
The town sparked the most recent period of rapid change by inviting people to enjoy the waterfront. Where so many had toiled in dirty, difficult professions for decades, the town in the 1980s began development of the Harborwalk, a 3.5-block wooden promenade that separates the harbor docks from the back entrances to Front Street businesses. Groups stroll side-by-side on the Harborwalk after eating a meal or grabbing a drink in one of a dozen nearby restaurants. When the wind blows, the clanking of rigging against the masts of sailboats in the private docks provides a musical backbeat for the scene.
The waterfront district is thriving despite a 2013 fire that forced the removal of seven buildings. It’s much like Myrtle Beach was 30 years ago in terms of tourist traffic, says Sally Swineford, co-owner of the popular River Room restaurant. Locals have the place to themselves much of the winter. Then “when the weather starts getting pretty again, people come back to Georgetown,” she says. By late March, hungry tourists and locals wait in line to get a lunch table.
At the Harborwalk Marina, tourist boaters return each year like migratory birds. “We turn boats away every night once things pick up in spring,” says manager Chris Carroll. “So many of them come through, and they all want to be downtown. They want to be able to walk to the restaurants and the shops.”
Harborwalk Marina is wedged between the tourist-related area and what’s left of the commercial fishing infrastructure. With boat repair services at Hazzard Marine and seafood processing services at Independent Seafood, Georgetown is well-equipped to handle commercial fishing. Yet the number of boats calling Georgetown home has dropped precipitously in recent years.
“There used to be three docks just full of boats here; now there’s just six boats,” says Independent Seafood owner Glennie Tarbox, who has worked on the Georgetown waterfront for 54 years. “It’s not an easy task to make it these days in the commercial seafood business. I think it’s going to become a niche business, where they fish less often and just supply a local market.”
Tarbox works out of a cramped office in a concrete block building that belies his and his company’s importance to the community. During Independent Seafood’s heyday, as many as 50 women would crowd around two tables along the waterfront, heading 10,000 pounds of shrimp on a good day. Now, that would be a good week, and most of the shrimpers head the catch themselves on their boats. The annual brown and white shrimp harvest in the state dropped from annual averages of 7.04 million pounds from 1990-94 to 2.26 million pounds from 2010-14, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service.
Meanwhile, charter fishing services and recreational boating are booming. The number of registered boats in the state jumped from 383,734 in 2000 to 462,680 in 2014, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association. Reed Tiller, owner-general manager of Hazzard Marine, has the equipment to haul the largest boats out of the water for repairs. Twelve years ago, he added marina facilities to handle boats from 25-to-60 feet.
“As long as there’s no serious economic trouble, I think the recreational boating industry will continue to thrive,” Tiller says.
But across the Sampit River, the big ships no longer want to visit the underutilized State Ports Authority dock. The port has been hurt by the shipping industry’s shift to large cargo ships, as well as the long delay in dredging the Georgetown channel. The channel, which was 27 feet deep after the last dredging in 2006, is about 19 feet now, says Perry Collins, president of Gulf & Atlantic Maritime Services, which provides stevedores for the port. He has had a front-row seat as the facility hit peaks in the past three decades, importing salt, cement, mahogany, and iron rods, and exporting wood pulp. But when International Paper switched to truck transport around 2000, the port business slowed remarkably. The port annually moved 1.5 million tons in the mid-1990s but only about 500,000 tons in 2015.
The community showed its support for the port by approving a one-cent sales tax to help pay for dredging. The tax was designed to raise $6 million, the community’s portion of an estimated $33 million project. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has put Georgetown on the back burner, focusing its dredging dollars on busier ports and waterways.
Many Georgetown residents would hate to see commercial shipping and its few high-paying jobs die, and they almost universally are rooting for commercial fishing to survive on their waterfront.
“You can’t have a historical waterfront without fresh seafood—let’s be honest,” says Paul Laurent, who guides kayak trips in the Georgetown harbor for Black River Outdoors Center. “You can’t go to a historical harbor and eat fried chicken—it’s just wrong.”
Laurent loves that Georgetown is working to buy Goat Island in the middle of the harbor and build a small dock and walkway there for passive recreation activities. He also would like to see a hotel on the steel mill property to make visitors want to stay overnight in the city. “Without the steel mill and without dredging, Georgetown has lost its old reason to exist,” Laurent says. “The only thing left is tourism.”
McClellanville: Rural, Aiming to Stay That Way
“In the long run, [the town’s isolation] was for the best, for while the benefits of progress had often eluded them, so had the pitfalls, and what remains, even today, is a relative charm and quiet.”
—“The Visible Village: McClellanville 1860-1945,” by William P. Baldwin, 1984
McClellanville stands apart from other working waterfronts in South Carolina in a couple of important ways. Its geographic isolation has helped maintain a rural attitude, and commercial fishing remains the economic driver for the community. These days, the town that got its start as a summer resort for plantation owners has the least touristy feel of South Carolina coastal communities.
The small commercial section of the Jeremy Creek waterfront is dominated by two commercial docks—at Carolina Seafood and Livingston’s Bulls Bay Seafood. A public boat landing with limited parking spaces gets crowded on weekends and during the public shrimp-baiting season in the fall, but most of those boats head into the Intracoastal Waterway and leave the working waterfront behind.
McClellanville is a place where you can expect to bump into characters like Ricky Russ, with the unruly white beard and leathery forearms of a man who has spent most of his life on boats. “I do shrimping, oystering, crabbing, clamming—anything on the water,” Russ says. “I’m not much for being up on the hill.”
“We used to not have anything to do around here in the spring but paint shrimp boats,” Russ says. “Now I can go out and pull traps in the morning and work in here the rest of the day and into the night.”
Jeff Massey, manager at Bulls Bay Seafood and son-in-law of owners Bill and Kathy Livingston, said the soft-shell crab operation is an example of how diversification keeps the business going strong. Harvesting soft-shell crabs, oysters, and clams complements shrimping. “One season flows into the next, and sometimes it’s two or three at once,” Massey says. “We don’t quit. We keep hammering away at it and trying to figure out the right way to do it.”
Massey wishes he could diversify even more and set up a food truck in his parking lot, but town zoning regulations don’t allow that. He won’t complain too much, however, because those same regulations along with the absence of municipal water and sewer lines, rule out condos, hotels, or restaurants on the working waterfront. To change that situation, an erstwhile developer would have to go through the mayor, Rutledge Leland, III, who also happens to own Carolina Seafood. Residents must appreciate the commercial seafood industry, because Leland’s been mayor since 1976.
Aaron Baldwin grew up in town, worked on boats in his younger years, and now is an art professor at Charleston Southern University and a member of town council. “I think people who are from here are supporters of people earning their living on the water,” Baldwin says. “People who are from here, we all grew up working on the water, and even if we’re lawyers or engineers or professors, we want to see that continue.”
Bulls Bay oysters dominated the dock space in the early 1900s, with as many as seven oyster processing houses. Shrimping arrived as a commercial operation in McClellanville in 1935, when a group of Portuguese sailors brought 15 boats up from Brunswick, Georgia for a season. Local residents saw the large hauls and recognized an opportunity. Prior to that, shrimping was a small-scale operation, often done in tiny sailing vessels. After World War II, many returning soldiers converted salvaged military boats, and soon there were 50 shrimp boats working out of four docks on Jeremy Creek. Oyster and crab processing plants also kept the docks busy. But the oyster and crab processing facilities have closed, and large private homes replaced the last crab facility in the past decade. In general, however, the waterfront remains a commercial seafood haven, with no public walkway along the docks and no waterfront restaurants.
The big question in the town of McClellanville is what happens to Carolina Seafood when the 72-year-old Leland retires. His children don’t want to run the business, and he says he has been talking with boat owners about forming a co-op to take over operations. “I want to keep these guys with a place to work,” Leland says. “I don’t want it to become a condo city. I want it to be a commercial fishing dock. I’m part of the community, and that’s what I like to see.”
Mount Pleasant: Crowding Pressures Town Icon
“Entering Shem’s Creek, where it flows into the Bay, the first settlement on the left is the plantation formerly owned by the late John D. Legare, Esq., the distinguished Horticulturist, of Charleston, whose labors are still recognized in the tasteful arrangement of the ground and shrubbery. … Beyond this, is the fine residence and planting lands of Dr. Louis Klipstein, on arriving at which, we are met by the energetic proprietor at his noble causeway and bridge, who takes great pleasure in shewing [sic] us his improvements.”
—Charleston Courier, 1858
Residential real estate was a big deal along Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant long before commercial fishing took precedence. The newspaper correspondent in 1858 made little mention of the working waterfront on the other side of the creek, where ships, bricks, and baskets had been manufactured and rice and lumber milled for decades.
Most of those businesses left the creek long ago, though boat building held out until the late 1900s. Commercial fishing began to dominate the creek in the middle of the 1900s, taking advantage of the deep channel and easy access to the open Atlantic. The first restaurants popped up in the 1960s in former fish processing houses. With the rapid growth of waterfront real-estate values in recent years, a former boat repair facility made way for high-end homes, the new waterfront estates of the very rich. One of those homes recently was on the market for $3.75 million, with a listing boasting of second-floor views of the Charleston Harbor but making no mention of the working waterfront closer to its back door.
Compared to other working waterfronts in the state, Shem Creek has evolved farther from its commercial fishing past. Now it’s lined by restaurants, and the water is filled on summer weekends by folks on kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and recreational boats.
Mount Pleasant town officials recognize the importance of Shem Creek. Mayor Linda Page believes improving the creek’s impaired water quality through upgrades of stormwater runoff systems in surrounding residential areas should be a priority. She thinks the town largely has done its part in providing access and helping the commercial fishing businesses with the construction in 2011 of Shem Creek Park and a town dock designated specifically for commercial fishing boats. The park features a boardwalk through a hummock island on the west side of the creek, and it has been a big success. The dock was much less so, as the town initially required boat owners tying up at the dock to carry insurance most didn’t have. In the spring of 2016, a partnership worked out between the town and the manager of an adjacent private dock and fuel center allowed boat owners to work within the town’s insurance requirement.
Two wife-and-husband teams—Kerry and Mark Marhefka of Abundant Seafood and Cindy and Taylor Tarvin of Tarvin Seafood—are leading the charge to keep commercial fishing alive in the creek. They have taken slightly different paths, but both couples believe smart operation of a strong business plan is the key.
“We’re scrappy,” Kerry says. “We supply 60-70 restaurants in South Carolina from a cooler that’s just 75-80 feet from the dock.” But they lease their small section of the Geechee Seafood dock on a month-to-month basis, and the owner has talked of selling the property to cash in on the high residential real estate values on the creek. “The business is thriving, but we cannot do our business without a little piece of the waterfront,” Mark says.
A couple hundred feet away, the Tarvins lease dock space as well as the former Wando Seafood processing facility, which had been shut down for a few years. This year, they also went in with the Marhefkas and another partner on the east side of the creek to buy an ice machine. All of this investment is from a couple with no background in the industry. The Tarvins bought a boat five years ago to help their son Vasa, who had worked in the industry and saw fishing as his best career option.
“If we knew that we could make long-term plans, this industry would take off again,” Taylor says. “We could sell our catch in the tri-county area. I could open up a fish shop in Summerville. I could open up a fish shop in Goose Creek. But if I can be kicked off this dock next month, I can’t make that financial commitment.”
Several commercial fishers have spoken with the East Cooper Land Trust about how conservation easements might work to protect the current use of some working waterfront properties while providing financial benefits for the current owners of the properties. But the key is getting the land owners interested in an easement arrangement, or finding an individual or group to buy the land and place it under restrictive easements, said Catherine Main, the land trust’s director.
The challenge is that Shem Creek, as a navigable public waterway, is open to everyone. Or at least everyone who can squeeze in. “It’s time to address overcrowding on the water,” says Livingston, who suggests enforcement of Boating Under the Influence laws might help. “Shem Creek is a tight waterway. It’s such a wonderful venue for shrimp boats and passive recreation. I hope we can find a gentle balance.”
Port Royal: Well Situated for a Renaissance
“As one gets off the cars at the neat little depot [in Port Royal] and looks around the point that strikes his attention first is the immense wharf front with the long, low warehouse running the whole length of it. There is room here easily for three thousand feet of wharf front. There is a double track running by this which is within twenty feet of the water. In this way every facility is furnished for the loading and unloading of vessels. … The water at the head of this wharf is of a depth to allow the deepest draft steamships to approach with ease. This pier is in want of repair, but could be fixed at a comparatively small outlay.”
—Charleston News & Courier, December 28, 1887
Nearly 130 years later, another large, but empty, warehouse dominates the Port Royal wharf and the commercial fishing docks again could use some minor upgrades. In some ways, however, this working waterfront has the most promising future of any in South Carolina. Battery Creek still has a naturally deep channel that is the envy of other working waterfronts. There’s a small public beach and a public boat ramp at the mouth of the creek. The commercial fishing docks farther down the waterway are owned by the town, and town leaders appreciate the value of maintaining that industry. The large empty warehouse and wharf section between those areas is a State Ports Authority (SPA) facility that closed in 2004.
While an underutilized SPA facility and a waterfront fire have been a hindrance on the Georgetown waterfront, similar occurrences at Port Royal have prompted optimism. The state is auctioning the 52-acre SPA property, though the deal has been delayed several times. A planning document sets parameters for the property’s future retail and residential use. The planned waterfront portion of the project features a private marina with up to 225 slips for recreational boats, including 10 designated for public use.
“We want to hold onto this because it’s culturally iconic,” Willis says. “We are very committed. No organization in South Carolina has spent more money helping the seafood industry than we have. We aren’t looking to make money. We just want a facility that’s being used.”
Even with a makeshift processing plant in an adjacent warehouse, the dock was busy as commercial shrimp season began in May. Adam Singleton of Saint Helena Island spent a sunny morning on the deck of his boat, heading several-hundred pounds of shrimp pulled-in the day before. “They’re doing it good for me,” Singleton says of the Port Royal dock operators. “I love working with the people here, and we ain’t got much place anywhere else around here to pack out like this. I hope it’ll be here as long as I’ll be shrimping.”
Packing out refers to unloading shrimp straight to a dockside processor, who then handles the sale of the shrimp to seafood companies or retail outlets. It takes the business of selling the catch out of the hands of the shrimpers. Former shrimper Joey Morris runs the processing operation for the town of Port Royal, which also maintains fuel and ice facilities.
Until the new processing building can be built, a forklift is being used to move ice in large trash cans to the boats. That and the low market price for the shrimp this year were the only complaints from Singleton and fellow shrimper Jimmy Rowe. But Rowe says the challenge of getting ice is offset by the ease of navigating Port Royal’s deep channel.
Looking Ahead: Change is the One Constant, and Planning for it is Key
The observations on South Carolina’s working waterfronts from a century ago don’t sound anything like what those communities have become. And today’s versions, likewise, are primed to change remarkably in the next decade or two. Unlike a century ago, however, stakeholders now are trying to guide the evolution.
Murrells Inlet 2007 was renamed Murrells Inlet 2020, and the group is looking into the use of nearby property as a solution to the parking dilemma. Georgetown’s leaders have asked the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute to help determine the ideal future use of the ArcelorMittal property. Port Royal has set limits on the building heights and population density for development on the former State Ports Authority property.
All of the communities also might be able to learn from others that have preceded them down similar paths. They can go online to the National Working Waterfront Network, a clearinghouse for resources as well as policy and economic best practices. Mount Pleasant’s Shem Creek commercial fishing operators worried about the future of their leased dock space can learn from Leland, Michigan, where residents formed the nonprofit Fishtown Preservation Society to raise $3 million to buy waterfront property and maintain its historical use.
“The opportunity to earn income has to be there, and it has to not conflict with residential use of the water and recreational use of the water to create forces that would work against them,” Leland says. “They have to be in harmony.”
Trends on the Water
Registered boats in South Carolina
Source: National Marine Manufacturers Association
Recreational angler trips in South Carolina
2000: 1.3 million
2014: 2.2 million
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service
Total commercial seafood catch in South Carolina
2000: 15.90 million pounds
2014: 8.95 million pounds
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service
Reading and Websites
Baldwin, William P. The Visible Village: McClellanville 1860-1945, McClellanville Arts Council, 1984.
Bonner, Walter. Home in the Village: McClellanville in Old St. James Santee Parish, Corinthian Books, 2002.
Bridwell, Ronald E. Gem of the Atlantic Seaboard, The Georgetown Times, 1988.
Miles, Suzannah Smith. Writings of the Past, King’s Highway, 1996, and East Cooper Gazeteer, History Press, 2005.
NOAA Report on the U.S. Ocean and Great Lakes Economy, 2012
Peterkin, Genevieve C. Heaven is a Beautiful Place: A Memoir of the South Carolina Coast, University of South Carolina Press, 2000.
“Vulnerability of fishing communities undergoing gentrification,” Journal of Rural Studies, Elsevier, April 2016.