Myrtle Beach History and Legends

From pirates to presidents, Myrtle Beach history is a rich tapestry of legends, lore, and historical fact. Once known as Long Bay, the beaches and coastal inlets of the Grand Strand are rife with tales of blockade runners, Revolutionary War heroes, ghosts, and sunken ships laden with treasure.

Long before the Grand Strand became known as a golf/shows/seafood/shopping paradise, it was home to the Waccamaw and Winyah Indians. These Native Americans called the area “Chicora,” which means “the land,” and gave their names to the rivers and bays here. An ancient trail traversed the length of “the land,” which later became a stagecoach route, and even later became U. S. Highway 17. There is an Indian burial mound on Waties Island, just off the mainland from Little River, and you can visit the Horry County Museum in Conway to learn more and see exhibits depicting the area’s early history. For the history of shipping and the area's waterways, visit the South Carolina Maritime Museum in Georgetown.

Grand Strand Towns and Historic Sites

Europeans first landed here around 1526, when Spanish explorer Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon established a settlement at Winyah Bay, beating out Pensacola, Florida by 33 years for the honor of earliest New World Settlement.

The Spanish abandoned the small fort a year later, and it wasn’t until 1729 that the town of Georgetown was laid out and named for King George II of England. It was here that Col. Francis Marion, the legendary Swamp Fox, taunted and foiled British troops during the Revolutionary War, disappearing into the wilds of the surrounding forests after each raid. 

Pawleys Island beach houseMany beach houses on Pawleys Island date back to the mid-19th Century.

Other towns sprang up, mostly fishing villages like Murrells Inlet and Calabash. Notably, Pawleys’ Island was the area’s first true vacation resort. In 1711, Percival Pawley and his three sons received a land grant from the king, and during the 18th Century, the island became a summer refuge for well to do planters seeking escape from the heat and malarial fever of their inland plantations. Pawleys Island is still known today as the “elegantly shabby” retreat of the wealthy.

Rice and indigo were the sustaining crops of the region’s antebellum plantations. Today for the most part only the names remain, although there are a few privately owned former plantation houses scattered around near Georgetown. Hobcaw Barony, a former hunting lodge, was once visited by both Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt. Today it is an internationally recognized research and education facility.

Historical marker for George Washington's Southern Tour

George Washington Slept Here

In 1791, the area played host to George Washington. The new president spent several days along the Grand Strand in late April as he traveled southward visiting all 13 states of the newly formed country. 

Washington followed the old Kings Highway, stopping for the night in the Brunswick Islands to stay at the home of William Gause, Jr. near Ocean Isle Beach, before entering South Carolina on April 27th. Wanting to see how the people truly lived and not wishing to put anyone out of their homes, the new President lodged in public houses when he could and paid his own way when possible. Even so, he was invited to stay in the homes of several private citizens including James Cochran at Little River, Jeremiah Vereen, who is listed on a memorial stone at Vereen Gardens, George Pawley in Myrtle Beach, and Doctor Henry Collins Flagg at Brookgreen Plantation, which is today Brookgreen Gardens.

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Pirate exhibit, North Carolina Maritime Museum, Southport, NCAn exhibit on pirates and pirate lore at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Southport.

Argh, There Be Pirates!

Other visitors to the area, equally famous but less welcome, included pirates. Blackbeard was said to have frequented the waters off the coast, harassing shipping while presumably passing to and from his home base in Bath, North Carolina. His terrorizing days ended when his ship was cornered at Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks. Rather than be captured and hanged, legend says he wrapped his ship’s anchor chain around his body and threw himself overboard. 

Another legend has it that Captain Kidd buried treasure on an island near Murrells Inlet. True or not, present day treasure hunters with metal detectors have been known to find some interesting things on the beach.

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Ghosts of the Grand Strand

Like any coastal region, the Grand Stand has its share of ghostly tales. Two prominent ghosts reside in the area, the Grey Man of Pawleys Island and Alice, the sad spirit of Murrells Inlet. There are numerous others as well as Gullah tales of haints and spirits. Check out local author and ghost tour leader Elizabeth Wolf’s book Ghosts of Georgetown for a spooky collection of tales. 

The Grey Man walks the beaches to warn of storms.

Railroads and Tycoons

Aside from the surrounding villages and plantations, Myrtle Beach was largely uninhabited until the late 19th Century when a Conway businessman and visionary named Franklin G. Burroughs saw potential in the coastal land along Long Bay. He purchased approximately 80,000 acres between Little River and Murrells Inlet, and created the Conway & Seashore Railroad in order to get vacationers to the place he called New Town. 

Unfortunately, Burroughs died before realizing his dream of rail travel to the beach, but in May 1900, service began from Conway to New Town thanks to Burroughs’ business partner Benjamin G. Collins and his son Franklin A. Burroughs. The company also ran a contest to name the new resort area and the winner was – Mrs. Burroughs – who called it Myrtle Beach for the abundance of wax myrtle bushes growing here. 

Burroughs and Chapin Art Museum, Myrtle BeachOnce the home of textile tycoon Eugene Cannon, the building today houses the Burroughs and Chapin Art Museum.

During the 20th Century, Myrtle Beach grew into a popular beach resort, but it also became the home of thousands of permanent residents who wanted more than tourist attractions. Local groups sponsored cultural efforts that brought the community such gems as the Franklin G. Burroughs-Simeon B. Chapin Art Museum among others. Here are some firsts.

  • The first hotel, the Seaside Inn, opened in 1901 and offered rooms at a daily rate of $2.00. At about the same time, beachfront lots were selling for $25, with the provision that the purchaser construct a cottage with a value of at least $500. 
  • The first golf course opened in 1927 and was called the Ocean Forest Club. This elegant and upscale club still operates today as Pine Lakes Country Club. 
  • The first state park in South Carolina was Myrtle Beach State Park, opened in 1936. That same year, the Intracoastal Waterway opened to commercial shipping and pleasure boaters alike, further opening the area to visitors.

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More Recent Myrtle Beach History

During World War II, the Grand Strand continued to attract vacationers, although with reports of German submarines off the coast, it became a blackout area, with no smoking after dark.

After the war, the beach was the place to go to dance and enjoy life, and in the late 1940’s the state dance, the Shag was born.

Myrtle Beach International Airport was originally the Harrelson Municipal Airport. In 1954, the Myrtle Beach Air Force Base took over the facility and used the airfield until the base closed in 1993.

Air Force planes at Warbird Park, Myrtle BeachWarbird Park on the east end of Farrow Parkway honors those who served at Myrtle Beach Air Force Base.

Through its history, the Grand Strand has withstood several major hurricanes, and each time, the area has rebuilt to an even grander scale. When Hurricane Hazel flattened the coast in 1954, locals bounced back and vacationers continued to flock to the Beach. When Hurricane Hugo tried to do the same in 1989, better construction and earlier warning prevented widespread destruction. Today with more and better highways and evacuation routes, the Grand Strand continues its somewhat rocky relationship with Mother Nature.

The ocean, the rivers, and the bays, are what make the Grand Strand the paradise that it is. They are constantly shifting and moving as living things and they will continue to be there long after we mortals are gone. For a better understanding of the dynamics of the coastal environment, visit the Museum of Coastal Carolina at Ocean Isle Beach on the Brunswick Islands, then go sit on the beach and watch the Atlantic Ocean at work.

Museum of Coastal Carolina touch tankLearning about sea creatures at the Museum of Coastal Carolina

For more Myrtle Beach history, check out local author Becky Billingsley’s book Lost Myrtle Beach and Rod Gragg's fascinating history of the area, Planters Pirates and Patriots.

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