Your Carolina Rover tour will depart from the harbor walk dock just off of Front Street in the historic seaport of Georgetown, SC. While in the present day it is pretty much of a 'sleepy little coastal Southern town', Georgetown was not always as far off the beaten path as it seems today...
First settled shortly after 1720, by 1729 the current day streets and layout of the modern day Historic District had already been laid out. Just a few years later, in 1732, Georgetown became an official port when a King's "Collector of Customs" arrived and took up permanent residence. Business and trade was thriving in Carolina, and Georgetown was one of the major ports where ships would call from Europe.
Along with the legitimate business of commerce this official designation brought came a period of time where the shaggy-looking, barrier island-lined coast of the Carolinas became a haven for many notorious pirates who preyed on the very ships that sailed to and from the port of Georgetown and nearby Charles Town (modern day Charleston). The reign of pirates was thankfully brief, and soon after it ended the area began to flourish with the indigo trade.
Indigo was a native plant from which came a much-sought after and coveted clothing dye favored by the royalty and wealthy of old Europe. The deep blue hues indigo produces were the hardest of colors to create in a clothing dye, and so when the area began to produce it in quantity, the riches flowed in. During the high time of the indigo trade, the wealth of the people along the Lowcountry coast rivaled that of many of the countries where they'd originally come from. Along with the wealth grew a culture, a society and lifestyle which became a facet of Georgetown, and which resulted in Georgetown being able to gain their independence from those in England to whom they no longer felt much allegiance. Founded in 1757, the Winyah Indigo Society was an example of the independent society which grew from the wealth of this trade, and as a gathering place they built a meeting hall which still stands today. This red brick edifice, which besides serving as a WIS meeting hall was also the site of the areas first free school, can be seen on the corner of Prince and Cannon Streets.
The indigo trade as a source of such wealth began to die out towards the end of the 18th century, when competition in the market from places halfway around the world like India and the East Indies filled the market with dye at much lower prices than had ever been seen before. Many of the same planters who'd been in indigo began instead to cultivate rice. The geography and climate of the area made for the ability to produce large quantities of rice, so long as there was a labor force ready which could handle the extensive, back-breaking work required to do so. They rice planters found their labor force in the form of slaves, largely imported from Africa. The effort expended in producing the rice plantations is truly mind-boggling; over 40,000 acres of land was hand cleared to create ricefields, much of it in deep swamp where things dangerous to man abound. Over 780 miles of canals were built to network these fields, and of all this work the second largest rice culture ever in the world was formed. The area produced a rice known as "Waccamaw Gold" or "Carolina Gold", a long golden colored grain, and at the height of the rice culture an average years yield was over 32 MILLION bushels of rice, with the largest year ever producing over 56 million bushels.
The Civil War saw to the beginning of the end to the rice culture. The system of slavery which permitted such a labor intensive crop to be grown in the area had ended, and with it went the grandeur that had been built on those broken backs of the very poorest. Combined with natural disaster in the form of several major hurricanes which decimated the crops and planters still struggling to make a living, the rice industry had felt its death blows. The last commercial rice harvest of note in the Georgetown area was in 1919.
At the beginning of the 20th century then, the people of Georgetown and the surrounding area turned to their forests to produce a living. Lumbering and sawmills produced large quantities of wood which could be sent downriver to Georgetown, and onward via ships to destinations the world over. It was at this time that the jetties at the mouth of Winyah Bay were built to accommodate the larger and more frequent shipping which resulted. The northern jetty is almost 2 miles long, and the southern almost 4 miles in, and a shipping channel was dredged to accommodate the deeper drafts of these newer vessels. These ships would pick up goods from many diverse wood-related businesses in Georgetown, from the Atlantic Coast Lumber Company with it's 5,000,000 board feet of dock and shed, to the DuPont wood alcohol and dynamite mill. On land, one could travel from Charleston through Georgetown to parts north on the coastal highway Kings Highway, today known as HWY 17) and the new Lafayette Bridge which spanned the Bay at the entrance to the Waccamaw and Pee Dee Rivers.
The area was hit hard by the Great Depression, and didn't rebound until 1936 with the construction of what was to become by 1944 the worlds largest paper mill. The mill, built by the Southern Kraft Division of International Paper, still operates today as one of the major job providers in the area.
Georgetown is quite literally full of historical landmarks of years past. Wandering through its oak-lined and shady streets, you can see placards on many of the homes which tell you the dates they were built, many of them over 200 years ago, some approaching 300 years of age. There are old churches and the graveyards next to them which speak of times past when young people died as often as did the older. There are buildings like the Indigo Society which mark pivotal moments in the history of the town, the old Customs House, the Kaminski Building, and the former Armory.
*So when you are walking towards the Carolina Rover for your tour, through the history around you on the Harborwalk , think of this: you are stepping, perhaps, right in the footsteps of an old rice planter, or a lumberman, a slave, an Indian trader, or maybe someone from even further back in the depths of time...