In the far southeastern corner of North Carolina sits the seafood capital, Calabash. Sixty years ago it was a sleepy dock for shrimp boats coming in the evenings to unload their daily haul. Restaurants began spring up along the docks offering truly fresh seafood, and although accessible only by sandy roads paved in oyster shells, Calabash became regionally if not nationally renowned as the seafood lovers haven. Not just shrimp but fish, oysters, and crabs were also served and accompanied by healthy servings of cole slaw, potatoes, and hush puppies.
Just about five miles up the road from Calabash, and still on the sandy, oyster-shell paved road sat Sunset Beach. In the mid 1950s Sunset Beach was the dream of Manion Gore, who lived beside the Intracoastal Waterway and built a floating drawbridge in front of his home that spanned across the Intracoastal Waterway to the island of what he named Sunset Beach. The bridge wasn’t much to look at, but it served its purpose. When barges or boats needed to pass, they sounded their horns from a distance and Mr. Gore or one of his employees would raise the connecting arms on the roadway, and swing the bridge open. The opening took about five to 10 minutes and closing was about the same.
In 1958 my next-door neighbors, Bill and Whaley Hunt, bought one of the first ten cottages on Sunset Beach. If my memory serves me correctly, they paid $5,400 for the cottage and ocean front lot. Sunset Beach, less than 2 miles long, a half mile wide and just 95 miles from our homes, became a regular destination in any season of the year, and I loved it!
The sand dunes located in the middle of the island were covered with myrtle bushes, and the ones close to the ocean were covered in sea oats. The only signs of civilization were the power lines coming down the sand/oyster shell road to the cottages.
For adventurous young boys, Sunset Beach was paradise. The beaches were nearly deserted and always game as our imaginations sent us out digging for buried pirates treasures. Blackbeard’s ship, the Queen Anne, ran aground over 100 miles up the coast, but to us that was close enough to Sunset Beach. Sunset Beach did have its shipwreck, and it was clearly visible at low tide between the pilings of the pier. It was a steel hulled boat – the Civil war blockade runner, the Vesta. It wasn’t a wooden pirate ship, but that didn’t stop the stories of ancient treasures being stored in the vicinity.
The myrtle bushes that covered the center part of the island were not unlike a tropical forest in our young minds. They came complete with the horse flies, mosquitoes, and other biting insects, but adventure lurked in the hidden places, and conquest came when we reached the top of the highest dune.
On the inland side of the island are the large salt marshes, covered in the higher places with marsh grasses and full of oysters, mud, and salt water in the lower areas. We explored the marshes by boat and quickly learned the limitations to getting too deep in the marshes when the tide went out. Our imaginations remembered the movie, “Huckleberry Finn,” and the log raft he built to float down the Mississippi River. We tried to recreate his feat using marsh grasses. Our raft floated — until one of us stepped on it.
While on the marsh side of the island we could hear the horns of approaching boats and barges and the sound of the drawbridge as it prepared to open. If we got there in time, the bridge keeper would let us ride the bridge house out as it opened. Our reward was a truly close-up view of a passing barge or leisure boat.
The aluminum outboard motor boat was our ticket to explore the Intracoastal Waterway. Just to the west of Sunset Beach was the small, deserted Bird Island. Bird Island was pretty much a small scale Sunset Beach before Sunset was developed. Access was only by boat. Bird Island was also a favorite spot for nude sunbathing. To young adolescent boys it was also a dream come true. We learned to cut the boat motor, paddle to shore, study the directions of footprints, quietly scale the sand dunes, lay flat amongst the sea oats, and enjoy the views.
In September 1960 Hurricane Donna was heading up the eastern seaboard and Bill Hunt needed to board up their cottage. I went down with him and his son, Grayson, for what proved to be a frightening adventure. The causeway road from the bridge to the island was under water, but we drove through it. The winds from the approaching hurricane began to pick up as Bill nailed plywood sheets over the windows and doors. By morning the waves were breaking over the pier and the tidal surge was growing. Water entered through the bottom of our pickup truck as we made it across the flooded causeway to the mainland and on to Laurinburg.
I was with the Hunts in the summer of 1961 or 1962 when North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford, a Laurinburg native, dropped by to spend the night. I don’t know if Terry had anything to do with it, but around that time a new Sunset Beach pontoon drawbridge was rebuild.
The new drawbridge was completed and was a marvel of modern ingenuity. The bridge keeper’s cabin was air conditioned! Still, like the older bridge you rode a car up a incline onto the center of the bridge and back down at high tide and took a dip at low tide.
Sunset Beach continued to grow. More cottages were built and the sand and oyster shell roads were paved with asphalt. I also noted that the myrtle bush wilderness was starting to disappear, replaced with cottages that nearly touch one another.
Years later, in 1978, Bill Hunt had gotten into the development game at Sunset Beach. I had just purchased a new car when he called: “Beacham, I have five side-by-side canal front lots I’d like to sell you. You can get all five for $35,000.”
Hindsight is 20/20. How I wish …
New environmental laws saved the Sunset Beach salt marshes from further destruction, and local construction laws prohibited high rise condominiums. Still the myrtle jungle and tall inner island dunes are now only a memory.
Sunset Beach has been blessed by natural growth. The Hunt’s cottage in 1958 sat near the high tide mark. Today, it is nearly 200 yards from the ocean front. The natural sand dune barrier also makes its ‘ocean front’ cottages the safest on the east coast from hurricane winds. Bird Island also still exists, but the inlet between it and Sunset Beach was filled by Mother Nature over the years. It is even possible to walk to Ocean Isle on the eastern end.
Multi-million dollar ocean front cottages now replace the simple cottages of the past.
The drawbridge has also come under fire for over three decades. Many travelers complained about the long opening times and the wait to either get on the island or get off. Boaters also complained about their delays while navigating the Intracoastal Waterway. Personally, I loved the wait. Arriving at Sunset Beach on the mainland and having to wait for the bridge to either open or close was always a subtle reminder that I’m on vacation time, not rush time. It was also time to pause and reflect on adventures of years past.
Today, the modern high-rise bridge has been completed and connects Sunset Beach to the mainland. The “Bridge to the Past” and the last pontoon drawbridge on the east coast has become just a memory, just like my earlier days at Sunset Beach.
Beacham McDougald is president of McDougald Funeral Home and Crematorium in Laurinburg. He serves as vice chair of the Scotland County Highland Games, on the Scotland County Tourism Development Authority, and is the founder and liaison of the Scotland High School-Oban High School student exchange program. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.