Island Throwback: Isle Of Palms, The Coney Island Of The South
By Jennifer Tuohy
“A trip to Charleston is not complete unless you take a trip on the ocean, a ride on the electric cars, a spin on the steeplechase, a turn on the Ferris Wheel,” proclaims a giant poster currently hanging on a wall at The Charleston Museum. Printed sometime between 1900 and 1910, the poster promotes the Isle of Palms, “universally acknowledged as the most attractive spot on the South Atlantic sea coast.”
Boasting “No malaria, cuisine unexcelled, attractive bills of fare, and the second largest Ferris Wheel in the United States,” the promotional material from the young resort attracted visitors from near and far to the isolated island. They came via a ferry from Charleston to Mount Pleasant and then a streetcar across Sullivan’s Island.
Previously the barrier island was known as Long Island—following decades as a hunting ground for the native Sewee tribe—and was only accessible by boat. It wasn’t until 1898 that Dr. Joseph S. Lawrence, of Beaufort, determined to turn it into a seaside resort and renamed it Isle of Palms. Lawrence, president of the Charleston Seashore Railway, constructed nearly eight miles of track and a trestle over Breach Inlet to connect with Sullivan’s Island.
According to Norman D. Anderson’s book Ferris Wheels: An Illustrated History, the first passengers arrived on July 28, 1898. The following year Seashore Railway became a part of the Consolidated Railway, Gas and Electric Co.
Within a few years, IOP was home to the Hotel Seashore, a grand pavilion with a 400 square-foot dance floor, a seaside restaurant and bathhouses. Shortly thereafter, a 186 foot-tall Ferris wheel, originally built for Chicago’s World Fair in 1892, arrived to become the centerpiece of the island’s entertainment, which also included a five-horse mechanical steeplechase imported from Coney Island.
These various attractions went a long way to turning Lawrence’s dream of IOP as the Coney Island of the South into a reality. According to the Street Railway Journal’s June 16, 1906 issue, IOP was “the leading seashore pleasure resort of this section of the south.”
“The winters, balmy and spring-like, make it popular as a tourist resort,” said the Journal. “And the exhilarating climate of this celebrated coast resort brings thousands to Charleston during the summer months.”
By 1913, Charleston-Isle of Palms Traction Company had taken over the resort operations. President James Sottile advertised the island extensively until 1924 when rising costs saw the enterprise dissolved, the trolleys and ferry discontinued, and a newfangled invention called the automobile begin to take over the island.