Fire in historic Georgetown reveals spirit of Lowcountry

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comSeptember 26, 2013 

It was sad to see pictures of Lowcountry beauty going up in flames.

The photographs came across my cellphone early Wednesday morning from Georgetown.

Angry orange flames 40 feet high roared through seven buildings on Front Street. This is the heart of the commercial section in the third-oldest city in South Carolina, behind Charleston and Beaufort.

The port city between Charleston and Myrtle Beach is home to a paper mill and steel mill, so its smell and dusting of rust have caused many people to roll up the windows and barrel straight through on U.S. 17.

But between the highway and the Sampit River lies a small town so beautiful that only those who have experienced Beaufort could understand it.

Maybe it hurt to see pictures of the fire because Georgetown is so similar to Beaufort in its charm and grace. Maybe it's that I have enjoyed red-eye gravy at Thomas Cafe on Front Street, peanut butter cookies at Kudzu Bakery, a walk through the Rice Museum beneath the Town Clock, or getting icy and wet picking up a cooler of shrimp on the dock at Independent Seafood.

Looking at those pictures of the fire, I thought of another disaster. Twenty-four years ago, almost to the day, Georgetown was battered by the hard winds and storm surge beneath Hurricane Hugo's northern eyewall. The buildings now gutted had survived Hugo's blast, and many others.

I couldn't help but think of Beaufort with its similar story on Bay Street. Beaufort's great fire of 1907 all but destroyed it. On a blustery January day, three little boys no more than 8 years old snuck into a barn to smoke cigarettes. They sparked a fire that destroyed 23 homes and 10 businesses.

Beaufort must have looked something like the block in Georgetown looks today.

And therein lies the story.

Beaufort and Georgetown are Lowcountry gems, not because of all the times they've been beaten down, but because of all the times they have gotten back up.

The beautiful homes, gardens, museums, parks and stores are testaments to the human spirit. In the Lowcountry, protection of our history and natural resources fuels that spirit.

By Thursday morning, a business website in Georgetown said most of the historic downtown was open for business.

"As a community," it said, "Georgetown lost a little piece of its soul but, now the initial shock has passed and like any small town in America we are getting up, dusting ourselves off and preparing to restore our town."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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