Old beach road with no beach to run to

Blink as you hurry through Pawleys Island, S.C., to get to the beach and you could miss one of the most interesting sights around: the remains of a beach that is no longer there.

On the east side of Highway 17, catercorner to a Fresh Market across the road, lies a big vacant lot with vine-tangled ruins that look like the setting for a Tennessee Williams play or a novel by William Faulkner.

Road to McKenzie Beach, Pawley's Island, SCIn fact, the whole property, 37.5 acres, has the look of a long-ago Southern yesteryear, or as poet Langston Hughes might have put it: the look of a dream deferred.

“McKenzie Beach is a most unusual property,” said Gordon Berl, a Pawleys Island real estate agent with the Dieter Company. Berl became interested in the property’s history while representing some of the owners who recently wanted to sell. It is no longer posted for sale.

Still, Berl’s description of it as “a most unusual property” is dead right. In the 1930s and ‘40s, it was the site of a popular beach resort owned and operated by blacks. Only one other beach for black vacationers was anywhere nearby: Atlantic Beach, some 40 miles on up the road, next to North Myrtle. In the South of that era, beach access for blacks was rare. Beachfront ownership was rarer still.

There is no recorded history of McKenzie Beach, but the few facts available say that it began in 1934 as a partnership between Pawleys Islanders Frank McKenzie and Lilly Pyatt. At its peak, it featured cabins; a causeway from the mainland to the shore; a foot-bridge to the beach (toll: 10 cents); a restaurant; and a pavilion.

Legend has it that “big-name recording artists like Little Richard performed there,” but the tunes most likely wafting from the pavilion were the big-band sounds of, say, Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train” (1941) or Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump” (1937) — in other words, the sophisticated jazz of that era, not the primal (and toe-tapping) squeals of Little Richard, whose first hit, “Tutti Fruitti” didn’t come until 1955.

Alas, by that time, the McKenzie Beach Resort was, one might say, gone with the wind. Hurricane Hazel, a category 4 sea monster, blew the place to oblivion in October 1954.

Today a fence bars entry to the property, a no-trespassing sign and a lock on the gates underscore the meaning of the fence and sign, and a dirt trail named Old Beach Road runs straight as a string down the north side of the property toward a foot-bridge that’s no longer there.

But the property’s obvious desirability still beckons to both buyers and dreamers. Want to make an offer? Bring lots of money.

Old Beach Road, McKenzie Beach, Paywleys Island, SC“It’s expensive,” Berl said. “But I don’t know of another property around here that stretches from the Ocean Highway to the sea.”

Or another site that attracts more attention from gee-whiz vacationers. After you finish reading your morning paper, be it The Times or the Fort Mudge Moan, get on your computer and google McKenzie Beach; you’ll get an idea how much interest this property has aroused in passersby over the years, some even suggesting that the state should erect a historical marker there — which is similar to Berl’s ideas for the place.

He said, “I’d like to see the property acquired by the local populace and see it developed into something that would anchor the community for generations to come while highlighting the important history of the site, which otherwise likely will be lost.”

He also believes “very strongly” that, although he didn’t get any takers, such an acquisition is possible, given, he said, the requisite resources and determination.

“The whole property, including the marsh, is co-owned by eight people,” he said. “I represented three of the eight, who together owned 40 percent of the property. They were asking $4.95 million.”

What would the whole property cost? That’s hard to pin down because the land’s numerous owners, Berl said, include some who don’t want to sell, others who might sell but are not eager to sell, and still others whose basic position is: “Well, it depends.”

Berl’s clients included Dr. Gladys Manigault Watkins, a retired educator and writer who now lives in Washington, D.C. In the 1950s, her family had a summer residence at McKenzie Beach, and in 1963, her father, Walter Manigault, partnered with Modjeska Simkins, a civil-rights activist from Columbia, to buy the property to save it from bankruptcy. (Yes, that was The Modjeska Simkins, Columbia-born and often called The Matriarch of Civil Rights and Social Justice in South Carolina.)

Most longtime residents of these parts (Georgetown, Pawleys Island, Murrells Inlet, Litchfield Beach and North Litchfield) have a pretty good idea where McKenzie Beach was located. For those unfamiliar with this neck of the woods, the beach was somewhere between the northern tip of Pawleys Island and the southern tip of Litchfield Beach — and might even have been the southern tip of Litchfield Beach proper before Hazel carved a new shoreline there.

No matter where exactly it was located — or where you’re from — you’re likely to agree there is something sad and maybe even haunting about an Old Beach Road in the Carolina Lowcountry that is now a geographical non sequitur: an old beach road with no beach to run to.

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Image credit: all of the images in the story were taken/provided by the author, Robert Lamb.

Robert Lamb

Robert Lamb

I grew up in Augusta, Ga., where I attended Boys' Catholic High. After service in the Navy, I attended the University of Georgia, majoring in English, and then began a (wholly unexpected) journalism career on the old Augusta Herald, an evening paper, and ended years later in Atlanta at The (great) Atlanta Constitution, which I left in late 1982 to write The Great American Novel. That goal has proved remarkably elusive, but my first attempt (Striking Out, in 1991) was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award. My second novel, Atlanta Blues, spent a few minutes on the best-seller list in (at least) Columbia, S.C., and was described in one newspaper’s year-end roundup as “one of the three best novels of 2004 by a Southern writer.” My third novel won no honors but at least didn’t get me hanged; titled A Majority of One, it is about a clash between religion and the Constitution over book-banning in the high school of a Georgia town. For my next novel, And Tell Tchaikovsky the News, I returned to an Atlanta setting for a story about the redemptive powers of, in this case anyhow, “that good rock ’n’ roll.” I've also published a collection of short stories and poems: Six of One, Half Dozen of Another. One of its stories, “R.I.P.,” was a winner in the S.C. Fiction Project in 2009. Before retirement, I taught creative writing and American literature at the University of South Carolina and its Honors College, and feature writing in its School of Journalism. I maintain a now-and-then blog at boblamb.wordpress.comand I walk my dog on the beach a lot at Pawleys Island, S.C.