How a Hunting Island park manager is turning a private island into a public delight

Hunting Island Park Manager J.W. Weatherford on the job.
Hunting Island Park Manager J.W. Weatherford on the job. Submitted photo

Hunting Island Park Manager J.W. Weatherford is engaging and energetic, but lately he also seems paradoxically tired.

It could be because he has three young boys at home, but the more likely cause is the prep work he’s been doing on St. Phillips Island.

As the person in charge of the state’s most-visited park, Weatherford is kind of a big deal. An even bigger deal, however, is getting St. Phillips — acquired by the state last year — ready for public use.

“As a park manager, it’s really exciting to open new property to the public,” said Weatherford. “It’s the kind of thing that will outlast your career.”

It’s a career that brought Weatherford to Beaufort only a year ago after serving at several different parks in various parts of the state for the past 11 years. When he arrived here last October, he knew he’d be in charge of Hunting Island operations but that the state parks service was also “well into the discussions” surrounding the acquisition of St. Phillips.

As if trying to help Hunting Island recover from two hurricanes wasn’t enough of a challenge, Weatherford soon found himself a self-professed “Logistical Operations Manager” for the remote, 4,600-acre island that once served as one of Ted Turner’s getaway houses. You know, the ones he visited when developing CNN and running the Braves got to be too much.

It should be noted that although this was once one of many properties around the country owned by Turner, it was never as luxurious a setting as it seemed on paper. The electricity, water and WiFi extenders we all take for granted were never much of an issue for the Turner family, who often never even bothered to turn on the air conditioning. Turner’s commitment to conservation and preservation are genuine enough to have sold the island to the state for a fraction of its appraised value.

Now, though, it falls to a team of park services planners to determine how to get the best public use out of the island.

First, there’s the matter of getting there. The public tours that conclude this month have been sort of a trial run. While the park may continue to contract with the same boat service that makes the run from Hilton Head to Daufuskie, the ride over to St. Phillips from Hunting Island always takes about 30 minutes. If you factor the return ride in to at least a two-hour trip to explore the island, you’re looking at ... a three-hour tour. Don’t worry though, Gilligan and The Skipper are nowhere to be found.

Once on the island, there’s a tram ride (cabled to a tractor) called a “people-mover” to get visitors from the landing to the main house. Think less Disney World and more Jurassic World monorail, minus the angry dinosaurs. The tram allows visitors to see the wildlife and foliage on the island, including the trees Weatherford calls “diverse and very unique in species and size.” That alone might be worth the trip for nature enthusiasts, but another attraction is the main house, where lunch for the initial tours has been served on the 800 square-foot porch overlooking the water.

Also of note is the National Natural Landmark plaque near the house, one of only six such federally-designated landmarks in South Carolina.

From that point, visitors can enjoy 8 miles of hiking trails or 1 mile of beachfront. While the frequency and availability of the tours is something still being worked out, it’s something we can all look forward to because of the proactive approach of the parks service.

“We have to be responsible stewards of the island, but we definitely want people to be in the parks” said Weatherford.

The vision of having people come to St. Phillips weekly is something Weatherford wants to stick around to see to fruition. Though the Gaffney native and graduate of North Greenville University once had plans to eventually return to the upstate, he and his family have found a home here.

“It did not take us long to fall in love with Beaufort,” said Weatherford. “It’s just as pretty as Charleston and not nearly as crowded.”

With the addition of St. Phillips and the hard work that’s gone into making it a serviceable public park, our area might have just gotten even prettier.