Beaufort folks have always loved Bay Point.
But they had sense enough to go home at night.
“Unbelievable,” is how Pierre McGowan reacted to the surprise announcement this week that a five-star resort could be built on the small island across Port Royal Sound from Hilton Head Island.
Pierre, almost 90, has lived and breathed the barrier islands off Beaufort since he was old enough to walk.
“I don’t see how it could be done without doing a lot of damage to the ecology,” he said. “That’s my view.”
Pierre, like so many old-timers of Beaufort, knows Bay Point like a member of the family.
Locals have been drawn to its bold reach into the Atlantic as far back as the late 1700s, said historian Larry Rowland.
And over the years, there have been many plans for its development.
In 1895, a New Yorker actually engaged Niels Christensen Jr., then fresh out of high school, to draw up plans for a hotel on Bay Point.
“The hotel was never built, although hopes for a large resort hotel at Bay Point or Land’s End persisted for the next 40 years,” says the third volume of Beaufort County’s history written by Rowland and Stephen Wise.
Hopes and dreams included a planned city at Land’s End on St. Helena Island and, “as late as 1933, local promoters were still talking about an automobile bridge to Bay Point,” the history book says.
That energy ended up being poured into a park at Hunting Island.
And Bay Point continued to be a happy place to escape the rigors of life in Beaufort.
Today’s social fabric in Beaufort County has the bright thread of sandbars on Sunday afternoons, where boaters flock to socialize in the waters of the May River, Beaufort River or Chechessee River.
Bay Point was like that, becoming an institution for its rustic camps and even “elaborate fish camps,” Rowland recalls. It’s where locals took day trips or even stayed a few nights in the strong breeze that sweeps over the southernmost in the string of eroding barrier islands off Beaufort.
Commercial excursions were offered on steamers, like the SS Summer Girl. The history book talks about members of the men’s Ribault Club or the Ladies Parsonage Society of the Baptist Church of Beaufort cruising out for a day of fun in the surf.
It was a favorite spot for “marooning,” the Beaufort tradition of setting up larger tents for longer stays at the beach for entire families.
The “Hole-In-The-Wall” deep hole off Bay Point was linked to a popular harbinger of spring in Beaufort — the drum fish run.
The Confederate Fort Beauregard on its shores was blasted away in one afternoon during the Battle of Port Royal Sound, its remains long since claimed by erosion.
But even during the Civil War, when Union troops manned buildings there, Bay Point was a place for frivolity, depending on weather and tides.
Eliza Ann Summers of Connecticut, who ventured to Hilton Head during the war to teach young freedmen, wrote about an excursion to Bay Point in a letter home to her sister. It was a social outing of men and women.
They ate lunch in one of the commissary rooms “which consisted of sandwiches, doughnuts, boiled eggs, sardines, cakes, oranges, pickles, olives, cider, cold coffee and I don’t know what else,” says Eliza’s 1867 letter recorded in the book, “Dear Sister.”
“Our tables were barrels, covered with brown paper for a table cloth, our seats were bags of meal, our knives and forks were our fingers, but it tasted just as good.”
The tide was too high and the rain too hard for them to go shelling, but a gentlemanly gentleman gave the young teachers some shells from his collection.
“They make beautiful necklaces,” Eliza wrote.
Ownership of the island was not a topic of conversation as each generation of Beaufort folks set up some useful structure out there, Rowland said.
But county records show it has been owned through time by the McLeod truck farming family of Beaufort County. Anne McLeod Poulnot and her late husband, Charleston harbor pilot Sherrill Poulnot, spent a lot of time there and built a 24-by-24-foot camp house.
Pierre McGowan tells a good story about television mogul Ted Turner’s wife visiting them from the island he owned next door. She barely got home alive after missing the pathway to the Turner home in the pitch dark, according to his “Tales of the Barrier Islands.”
Other owners have included Yamamah Ltd. and Bland & Sons, according to county records. Sale prices include the numbers $5.5 million and $3.8 million.
Former Beaufort mayor and real estate broker Henry C. Chambers marketed it for years. In late 1998, he got it subdivided into potentially 49 residential lots without any county review. The GIS map on the county website for real estate records shows it subdivided into 46 lots, but nothing was built on them.
Old-timers say nothing was ever built on Bay Point that couldn’t easily be surrendered to the seething jaws of nature.
They’re talking about the challenges of water and sewer, electricity, wind and erosion.
They know that Bay Point has always been a place of dreams, including many of their own. But at the end of the day, the locals left a light trace and went home at night.