Hilton Head History Series- Part 3: The First Resort
In 1931, Wall Street tycoon, physicist, and patron of scientific research Alfred Lee Loomis, along with his brother-in-law and partner Landon K. Thorne, purchased 17,000 acres on the island (over 63% of the total landmass) for about $120,000 to be used as a private game reserve.
In the early 1950s, three lumber mills contributed to the logging of 19,000 acres of the island. The island population was only 300 residents. Before 1956, access to Hilton Head was limited to private boats and a state-operated ferry. The island's economy centered on shipbuilding, cotton, lumbering, and fishing.
The James F. Byrnes Bridge was built in 1956. It was a two-lane toll swing bridge constructed at a cost of $1.5 million that opened the island to automobile traffic from the mainland. The swing bridge was replaced by the current four-lane bridge in 1982.
In 1956, Charles Fraser, son of one of the families that owned most of the Island, realized that Hilton Head Island had more to offer than just timber. Armed with vision, energy, modern air conditioning and investment dollars, he created a master plan for a resort community. His efforts were aided by the construction of a bridge to the mainland the same year. Sea Pines Plantation was the first of the Hilton Head family resorts.
Soon, other developments followed, such as Hilton Head Plantation, Palmetto Dunes Plantation, Shipyard Plantation, and Port Royal Plantation, imitating Sea Pines' architecture and landscaping. Sea Pines, however, continued to stand out by creating a unique locality within the plantation, called Harbour Town, anchored by a recognizable lighthouse. Fraser was a committed environmentalist who changed the whole configuration of the marina at Harbour Town to save an ancient live oak. It came to be known as the Liberty Oak, known to generations of children who watched singers (namely, Greg Russell) perform under the tree for over 25 years. Fraser was buried next to the tree when he died in 2002. Sea Pines Plantation has become and remained the prototype of the modern resort community, now copied around the world.
Hilton Head was incorporated as a town in 1983, Hilton Head Island is now home to several environmentally planned resort and residential communities, supporting more than 40,000 full-time residents.
Although the Island is home to many world-class golf courses and resorts, much of the landscape remains as it was when sighted from William Hilton’s ship more than 300 years ago. Hilton Head Island’s natural beauty, spectacular seascapes, exceptional ecology and South Carolina historical sites now beckon a new generation of explorers.