Local Military News

Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island has made Beaufort what it is

Parris Island Naval Station, circa 1880s.
Parris Island Naval Station, circa 1880s. MCRDPI

One of the primary driving forces behind South Carolina's economy is its military.

That's particularly true locally. In fact, the city of Beaufort's existence today can be largely attributed to Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island.

"Parris Island is the keystone to Port Royal Sound," said Lawrence Rowland, professor emeritus at University of South Carolina Beaufort and author of "The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina." "It has had military significance, naval significance, since the earliest explorers."

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The base at Parris Island was established in 1915, but military leaders realized the potential for naval activities there during the Civil War, Rowland said. As a result, Port Royal Sound became the headquarters of the blockade from Key West, Fla., to Norfolk, Va., with supply ships constantly going back and forth.

"There were more people living on Hilton Head during the Civil War than at any time before 1974," Rowland said. "That's how big it was."

Even when the Civil War ended in 1865, the Navy retained its presence in Port Royal Sound, occupying it as an anchorage and unofficial supply depot.

When the railroad was built out to Port Royal between 1867 and 1878, military interest in the area grew to be more significant. In 1877, the U.S. Navy established the United States Naval Station Port Royal, building infrastructure and buying land on Parris Island to expand naval operations.

But military growth was stunted, and eventually halted, in the late 1800s.


In the early 1900s, a political shift occurred in S.C. government, and one key figure came into play.

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"(Congressman James Byrnes) came down here and he said, 'You know, it would be nice to do something with Parris Island'," Rowland said.

Byrnes discussed the idea of making Parris Island a naval or Marine training station in Congress. At the same time, the U.S. Navy considered putting Parris Island up for sale.

"Jimmy Byrnes and (Sen.) 'Pitchfork' Ben Tillman said, 'No, let's re-study this'," Rowland said. "And they saved it in Congress."

When Josephus Daniels was appointed by Woodrow Wilson to be the U.S. secretary of the Navy in 1913, Rowland said he toured Parris Island and echoed Byrnes' sentiment that something needed to be done with it.

"He sent his assistant secretary of the Navy, along with Congressman Byrnes, to Parris Island to make a report about what exactly should be done with the federal facility," Rowland said.

That assistant secretary of the Navy was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Roosevelt and Byrnes, who Rowland said became lifelong political friends after their initial meeting on Parris Island, reported back to Daniels, who in early 1915 decided Parris Island would be a Marine Corps barracks and training facility.

"On Oct. 15, 1915, Colonel John Lejeune came to Parris Island and accepted possession of the property for the United States Marine Corps," Rowland said.

Less than two weeks later -- on Oct. 28, 1915 -- the Department of the Navy announced the creation of United States Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, the first independent Marine Corps base in the nation.

The timing was critical, as World War I was beginning to pick up steam and the U.S. needed to be militarily prepared.

"During World War I, 46,000 Marines went through boot camp on Parris Island," Rowland said.

The population of Beaufort County at that time was 21,000. In that two-year period, the population and economy boomed.

"Everybody went to work on Parris Island," Rowland said. "The town was full of people and families. It was prosperity.

"And then it collapsed."


The end of the war marked the end of a steady flow of Marine recruits going through the depot. The base struggled to stay open. As a result, the local economy took a significant hit.

"By the mid-1930s, this was one of the poorest places in the United States," Rowland said.

Between 1900 and 1940, 38 percent of the population left Beaufort County, he said.

"People actually starved to death in Beaufort County because they didn't have enough nutritional food," Rowland said. Many people had to fish for food and lived off the land. A black farm worker made an average of $90 annually.

The base was nearly shuttered during the Great Depression. But Roosevelt, who became U.S. president in 1933, stepped in to help save Parris Island, putting a small amount of money into the base annually to keep it open during the '30s.

Parris Island had a key turning point in conjunction with world events a few years later.

"In 1938, the Roosevelt administration looked around the world and said, 'We better build up our military because it's going to blow up'," Rowland said.


World War II caused a resurgence of activity at the depot. In all, Rowland said, 241,000 Marines -- 10 times the amount of Beaufort County's population of 24,000 at the time -- went through Parris Island during the war.

The government issued $2 million to $3 million in federal contracts between 1938-40 for the rebuilding of Parris Island. Rowland said the Beaufort County treasurer claimed the total taxable land value for the entire county was $3.75 million in 1935.

"It's an indication of how poor (Beaufort County) was," Rowland said. "It was abandoned and poor and the end of the road."

But when military families moved into town, the economy saw a significant uptick. Houses previously abandoned were filled. Businesses to serve the growing population moved in.

"Parris Island in World War II is the springboard that launched Beaufort County into its current prosperity," Rowland said.

Without it, Rowland said, it would be hard to imagine Beaufort undergoing the growth it achieved in the later 1900s and into present day. The eventual establishment of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort cemented northern Beaufort County as a strong military-based economy, but it was Parris Island that first established Beaufort as a significant place to live and for businesses to thrive.

"Beaufort was a very different place because of the Marine Corps families," Rowland said. "They came from all over the world. They brought people with different experiences. They brought a higher level of intellectual interest and ability."

Following the war, most Beaufort citizens and businesses were still directly or indirectly dependent on the military.

"Everyone in town worked for the Marine Corps," Rowland said. "It's been that way since World War II."

Today, the two legs of the Beaufort County economy are tourism and the military, he added. Parris Island alone generated $401.38 million in economic activity in 2014.

"The founding of Parris Island is a monumental feature of modern Beaufort County," Rowland said. "We wouldn't have the community that we have without it."

By the numbers

Estimated economic impact of Parris Island

Military salaries: $273.9 million

Civilian salaries: $59.5 million

Contracts/purchases: $42.6 million

Contributions: $284,066

MCRD PISC Family Day/Graduation: $25.09 million

Graduation visitors: 63,948

Direct jobs: 1,062

Total economic impact: $401.4 million

Source: Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island 2014 economic impact study


Follow reporter Ashley Fahey at twitter.com/IPBG_Ashley.