Beaufort will honor Henry C. Chambers at the Water Festival this week.
A few remarks will be made, starting at 7:40 p.m. on Hometown Tuesday, prior the main act. The mayor will read a City Council resolution, there may be other recognitions, and then everyone will sing “Happy Birthday” to Chambers in the park that bears his name — and changed the course of history.
He’ll turn 89 on July 23 in the same town where he was born on Port Republic Street, a sixth-generation Beaufort County resident.
His 6-foot, 3-inch frame will be slightly bent with half a foot lost to diabetes. But his mind is as organized as his boxes of personal papers. They document the modern metamorphosis of a 306-year-old city. Its spirit runs through his blood just as the Beaufort River runs past the swings in the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park.
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The latest volume of the county’s history calls Chambers “the most effective city leader of the 20th century.”
Someone else said he led the town “kicking and screaming” into an era of prosperity not seen since the Civil War.
The 7-acre waterfront park, which he said lets the city once again turn its face to the Beaufort Bay instead of its back, wasn’t an easy sell when he started pushing it shortly after being elected mayor in 1969. But since its grand opening a decade later, residents and visitors have loved its gathering spaces, playground, marina, pavilion, grassy common, waterfront promenade and benches and swings with breathtaking views.
It replaced a dilapidated wharf area from a dead economy. The waterfront had little use, strung along behind Bay Street businesses, a good number of them boarded up or run down.
But Chambers says the park is not the main reason that Beaufort’s movie-setting downtown is now the darling of magazines that rank best places to live and visit.
No, the Clemson University civil engineer says, it was the sewer service that stopped raw sewage from going into the river. It was paved streets, extended water lines, improved fire service, recreation facilities, annexation, and historic preservation.
Chambers had a finger in all of it in his 20 years as a lightning-rod mayor.
But if you look at the challenges in his life, it probably should never have happened.
Milk in a liquor bottle
Henry Carroll Chambers comes from a broken home.
And as an adult, he has suffered through the deaths of his wife and two of their five children.
His parents and grandparents were divorced at about the same time, an oddity in an era when divorce rarely happened, and was certainly looked down upon.
He was reared at the elbow of his grandfather, a character who played football at Clemson under coach John Heisman, and came home to Beaufort to build the city’s first water and sewer system and establish an ice company. Chambers lived with his grandfather at the large home in The Point called Marshlands, while his brother, Ben, lived with a grandmother in the beautiful home called Tidelands.
He was the great-grandson of a Reconstruction-era merchant, and promoting economic prosperity in an out-of-the-way place was in Chamber’s blood.
His generation, now passing, still clings like barnacles to the small-town ways of their free-wheeling youth. They literally grew up in the river, innately breezing over it and dive-bombing in it like a formation of brown pelicans.
Chambers tells about the time his grandfather stuffed a pint bottle of whiskey in the waistband of his pants at a police roadblock and told him to keep his mouth shut. He tells that, “I was the only child in Beaufort Elementary School who took his milk to school in a half-pint liquor bottle.”
He also says he saw his grandfather’s fighting spirit, and foresight, in opposing a large paper mill proposed for the area.
And he saw that spunk and perseverance again when his mother and stepfather challenged the city’s hierarchy and, with the help of attorney Reeves Sams, blocked a 10-story hotel from being built in The Point where the Gold Eagle Tavern would later start opening the nation’s eyes to the beauty of Beaufort, “Queen of the Carolina Sea Islands.”
“That proved to me that historic preservation could be done,” Chambers said.
Young Chambers became an Eagle Scout, the start of a lifetime in Scout leadership, earning its highest national honors. He was on Beaufort’s state championship basketball and football teams. First Presbyterian Church gave him something to cling to, like a dock piling.
As a teenager, Chambers flew a Piper J-3 Cub airplane from Beaufort to deliver the newspaper to state Sen. William Brantley Harvey Sr. during his annual two-week hunting trip to Pinckney Island.
Chambers went off to Clemson, and then the Army, and married Betty Brewer, the May Queen at Converse College. Friends say they made the most striking couple you ever saw who wasn’t in the movies.
These ingredients all stirred around in that old, worn pot that somehow produced the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park.
‘It can’t be done’
Beaufort leaders had been talking about doing something on the waterfront to revive the town for 30 years.
One mayor proposed a street to run behind the Bay Street buildings on the water. Another proposed a park.
But when Chambers pushed it into reality, there was a lot of pushback and doubt.
“They said it can’t be done,” he told me last month. “It was because they never did it.”
Chambers turned first to his beloved Clemson, where he has served on advisory boards to seven presidents. He invited fifth-year architecture students to come to Beaufort in 1970 to sketch ideas that could pump life into downtown as the world scurried for malls and suburbs.
Their ideas were turned over to another Clemson graduate, hall of fame landscape architect Robert E. Marvin of Walterboro, who planned the waterfront park. The park remains among the long list of Southern jewels for Marvin, who heavily influenced the look of early Hilton Head Island development.
The problem was money: $5.3 million that all but a few dollars had to come from grants. City Council unanimously approved the park plan. But as the finances got sketchier, with construction beginning before it was all in place, two City Council members balked and at least twice Chambers had to break the 2-2 tie to keep the builders on the job.
Chambers says U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond guided $2.5 million to the project through the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation. His lifelong friend, then-Lt. Gov. Brantley Harvey Jr., helped, as did state Sen. James Waddell of Beaufort and state Rep. Wilton Graves of Bluffton.
All but two landowners along the waterfront donated their land and riparian rights, a total value of almost $500,000.
Ed Duryea, who was city manager at the time, said he spent most of his time raising money for the park. He said it could not have been done without a series of bridge loans — and then loan extensions — from the Bank of Beaufort, with local officers and board members headed by brothers G.G. and Joab Dowling.
Chambers said, “People fell in line as we built it.”
City Council named the park for Chambers before it was finished.
The park’s dedication was a weekend-long affair called “Up With Beaufort” on May 4-6, 1979.
Keynote speaker Thurmond said he never saw anybody shake more money out of Washington than Chambers.
The ceremonies included the Columbia Philharmonic Orchestra, the Marine Corps Band, a ski show, a fishing rodeo for children, fireworks, a patriotic/gospel singalong, and a Mayor’s Ball.
Today, Chambers is retired from careers in concrete and real estate. He is fighting health issues, as is his second wife, Joye. He no longer lives on a yacht in the Downtown Marina.
But as always, he seems upbeat and chipper despite “bumps in the road.”
When asked about the park where he will honored this week, Chambers says, “I think it turned Beaufort around economically.”
In a letter to The Beaufort Gazette — written in 2004 as part of the ongoing drama of how to best improve the park, finance it and keep it up — Elizabeth McCaslin of St. Helena Island shared what it has come to mean to the people:
“It’s a place for craftsellers and farmers markets and annual book sales guarded at night by Boy Scouts; it’s a stage where costumed children are just as important as bluegrass singers or a Marine band; it is croquet tournaments and parachutists landing at just the right spot with flags on their ankles, and a band playing ‘America the Beautiful’; porch swings where people laze the afternoons away; restaurants with open porches to dine before a waterfront view; a playground where frazzled mothers rest while their children swing and perch and climb; grassy lawns and art galleries and contests and a lovely walk along the river’s edge with a view of an old swing bridge and a marina with bobbing sails and boats and a ship’s store and a tourist buggy attached to a tired horse being tended to with compassion.
“Of strangers saying hello, and smiles as touching as tears, and a breath of air as sweet as a greeting from a friend. A silent belonging, an owning, a response, a communication.”
City Council resolution
A resolution approved by Beaufort City Council on July 11 to pay tribute and offer gratitude to former Mayor Henry C. Chambers for his many accomplishments during his 20 years of devoted service on behalf of the citizens of the city of Beaufort and the greater community.
WHEREAS, Henry Carroll Chambers was born on July 23, 1928 on Port Republic Street in the City of Beaufort and with his friends explored and had a love affair with every nook and cranny of our city, both land and water, and became an Eagle Scout among other early achievements; and
WHEREAS, the lanky “Hank Chambers” graduated from Beaufort High School in 1945 and went on to complete Clemson University in 1949 with a degree in Civil Engineering and to this day remains one of Clemson’s most ardent supporters; and
WHEREAS, after serving his country in the US Army, Henry returned to his beloved Beaufort to start his family and his business and quickly became engaged in community service through Sertoma, Rotary and other civic and service organizations not the least of which was economic diversification and his leadership at the local, state and national level of the Boy Scouts of America; and
WHEREAS, when Chambers was elected Mayor in 1969, Beaufort was quite different from the City we now know: lacking in infrastructure necessary to grow; few paved streets, limited access to sewer and water, and few amenities to attract tourists and retirees, let alone give young people little reason to return to their hometown; and
WHEREAS, suburban sprawl was taking its toll on the greater downtown by moving shopping opportunities outside of the core city to the edges leaving much of Bay, Bladen, Charles, Carteret, West and Scott streets barren with stores vacant and boarded up; and
WHEREAS, when elected Mayor, Henry realized that saving the city’s historic core and making it grow on the circumference would require massive public investment the city did not have, he traveled to Washington and Columbia where through college, professional and personal relationships he was able to get funding in excess of $50 million for road, water and sewer improvements and the expansion and critical revival of the core historic city, not the least of which was to fulfill his vision of our fabulous Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park that would bring attention to the region and instill life back into the core city; and
WHEREAS, understanding the importance on Historic Preservation, Mayor Chambers and City Council commissioned the Milner organization, whose report helped to establish our National Historic Landmark District and measures for protecting it; and
WHEREAS, on this occasion of the 62nd Beaufort Water Festival and the first Hometown Tuesday Celebration, it is only appropriate to for the City Council and all citizens of the City of Beaufort and surrounds to publicly honor and thank Henry C. Chambers, our former Mayor, for his lifetime of service to the people of Beaufort.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that a copy of this resolution be presented to Henry C. Chambers on behalf of the citizens of the City of Beaufort and all who consider Beaufort our hometown.