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Hilton Head Island | Before the Bridge

By Luana M. Graves Sellars

Hilton Head Island’s first swing bridge that connected to the mainland.

Every day, close to 50,000 cars cross the bridge onto Hilton Head Island. In 1952, the year that the bridge was built, that number was the annual amount of visitors to the island. 

Today, having a connection from Hilton Head to the mainland is an afterthought, and traveling to Bluffton, Beaufort or Savannah, is as easy as getting in a car and heading west over the James F. Byrnes Bridge. The current four-lane span was built in 1982, replacing the original two-lane toll swing bridge. 

Once upon a time, however, leaving the island wasn’t so easy, and for most of the Gullah families that were here before the bridge, whatever was on the mainland couldn’t compare to the good living that was on this side. Prior to the bridge’s completion, the island was not accessible to vehicle traffic; unless you had access to the island by the limited state-operated ferry or by private boat. 

Mother Emanuel
By Sonja Griffin Evans

Before the bridge, a bateaux, which is a small flat bottom rowboat, was the only way to reach the mainland. For most of the Gullah families that lived on the island, it was as important to the household as the house itself.  Pre-bridge, one could go days without seeing a car. Just like travel, communication with the mainland was difficult too. It wasn’t until after 1958, that phone lines were brought to the island.  

Prior to the bridge, if you wanted to leave the island, you needed to go to the Fish Camp, where Charlie “Mr. Transportation” Simmons’ launched his boat for a ride to Savannah. Charlie’s boat became what Dr. Emory Campbell describes as “the lifeline between the island and the rest of the world”.  Between the 1930s and the ’50s, the day-long trip was how goods were transported back and forth to Savannah for sale. Charlie’s boat held six cars and he “didn’t do it for the money, [it was] only as a service to the island.” Even developer Charles Frasier’s first trip to the island and subsequently all of the workers who built Sea Pines, the island’s first plantation, were transported aboard one of Simmons’ boat.  

Before all of that, from the late 1800s to the early 1950s, Hilton Head was the home to a thriving Gullah community that developed post-slavery. Prior to the bridge, isolation created a pure and unfiltered African based culture. The Gullah culture, that continues today, was born out of blended elements that were combined from several African countries into rich and unique traditions, many of which are adopted into American culture. 

The Gullah language is probably the most identifiable aspect of the culture. Made from a combination of African dialects, the language was created to be a common and coordinated way of communicating without the slave owners understanding what was being said. Several words that are common in American dialect can trace their origins back to the Gullah.

For the Gullah, prior to the final span connecting to the mainland, life as they knew it was filled with a sense of untold wealth. Not a financial wealth, but a wealth that comes from a foundation with a strong community built on values, support and family. It’s been said, that most of the island’s residents didn’t consider themselves as poor or without, and they “never went hungry”, because they had all of the hunting, seafood and crops that they ever needed. The community lived in support of each other. “If one had, they all had. If one needed, then someone provided.”  No one ever went without; if someone else had it to give. From hunting to fishing to farming the land, the families that were here did not lack for anything. “We didn’t have to go far for food or need to buy it. Everything was right here.” 

Over time, as the mainland began to see the island’s potential, Hilton Head’s thick forested areas were being logged by three lumber mills. While the land continued to be planted with cotton and indigo, the Gullah were utilizing the waters to harvest the plentiful oyster beds and seafood and their land to grow a variety of crops that they used for survival. Any excess crops or seafood were transported to the mainland for sale. 

As the Gullah lived their lives maintaining their traditions, including their language, industry and development slowly crept onshore. Over time, the language and some of their traditions have faded, however, a lot of them still remain today.

For more sections about Life Before The Bridge on Hilton Head Island | Education, Lifestyle, Medicine, Religion

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