Deputies investigate island cistern mystery

tbarton@islandpacket.comNovember 17, 2011 

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The scene had the hallmarks of a murder mystery.

An abandoned gun next to scattered ammunition.

A hat with no owner.

A dark cistern, perfect for hiding a body.

Trouble was, there was no body.

Hilton Head Island resident Todd Payne was walking around town-owned land between Park Lane and Leamington searching for Indian artifacts when he stumbled upon an old shotgun lying in the woods near an uncovered, abandoned cistern.

"If you fell in there, you wouldn't survive because no one could hear you scream," Payne said of the six cisterns --each about four feet square and two feet deep -- on property used by Marines in World War II.

Payne contacted the Town of Hilton Head Island, which purchased the six-acre property in 2001 as part of its land preservation efforts, and the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office out of concern the area was a potential crime scene or someone would fall in the cisterns.

The Sheriff's Office searched the site using a new cadaver dog but found nothing, according to spokeswoman Sgt. Robin McIntosh.

"The shotgun was old and had been there some time and had been broken down, either for cleaning or had fallen apart, and was likely left by a hunter," McIntosh said. "We found hunting paraphernalia nearby and there's a lot of deer in that area. We take these reports seriously and checked it out to see if there's anything to it and at this point we don't believe there is."

The site was used as a hunting camp after World War II until the late 1960s, according to a town survey of the land.

Payne is skeptical. Why would a hunter leave his gun? Why would someone leave their hat?

The town has subsequently covered the cisterns with chain link fence and placed caution tape around them. Town facility manager Julian Walls said the cisterns will get a permanent cover later.

The site, nestled between the 8th and 9th greens of the Arthur Hills Golf Course, also includes an underground concrete vault, debris, concrete pilings and a small, one-story brick structure that formerly housed an electric generator, according to town records. The empty structure, which is missing roof, is marked as "Power Plant."

Artillery defense batteries and searchlight units trained at Parris Island and Hilton Head in the late 1930s. In December 1937, the Second Anti-Aircraft Battalion, FMF, arrived at Parris Island. The next year, the battalion moved to Camp McDougal on Hilton Head, where the men lived in tents until barracks were built.

By 1939, the camp included a mess hall, hospital, post exchange, recreation room, boiler and hot water house, ammunition shelters, vehicle sheds, a headquarters building and a pump house and well that supplied a 7,500-gallon water tank on a steel tower.

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead

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