History of State Parks in South Carolina


In the early 20th century, decades of environmental neglect caught up with the nation. The western dustbowl and eastern erosion created a widespread image of a ruined landscape. This image coupled with the economic need to put young men to work in the Great Depression, led to a national policy of conservation and park development and the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933.

South Carolina embraced the program early, mostly for its economic benefits, and a number of CCC camps were set up around the state. Initial mobilization and management of the CCC fell to the military, but soon leadership and planning roles came to professionals in the National Park Service with training in resource management, landscape architecture, forestry, and recreation planning. Many conservationists, such as Ben S. Meeks of Florence, also assumed leadership roles and instilled a conservation philosophy to the movement.

The National Park Service began to purchase abused land to “restore nature” and many of the great eastern national parks such as the Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah National Parks were developed at the same time and with the same guidelines as our early state parks. State parks like Table Rock were developed as “small national parks,” guided by the same philosophy and planning criteria. Visitors to both the national and state facilities usually notice the common ancestry.

A combination of local initiative and federal involvement led to many of our first state parks. Park sites were often donated by local entities, added to, and developed as recreation demonstration units under the guidance of the National Park Service. Cheraw was the first of these, in 1934, where the community purchased 706 acres for a state park, the first property in the system. That same year, the legislature charged the Commission of Forestry, the only agency with a mandate to conserve natural resources, with the responsibility of developing and administering a state park system.

Using local building materials, such as stone and rough-cut timbers, the men of the CCC and other federal projects built lasting structures that we still enjoy today at Oconee, Paris Mountain, Table Rock, Kings Mountain, and several other parks. Sixteen state parks were acquired during the 1930s and Myrtle Beach was the first to open on July 1, 1936. By the end of the 1930s, the CCC efforts were shifted to national defense and the Forestry Commission assumed responsibility for completing the park projects. Staffs were limited and summer visitation was managed by seasonal employees. At the turn of the decade, there were only four full-time headquarters employees and two superintendents.

The Civilian Conservation Corps developed the following state parks in South Carolina: Aiken, Barnwell, Cheraw, Chester, Colleton, Edisto Beach, Givhans Ferry, Hunting Island, Lake Greenwood, Lee, Myrtle Beach, Oconee, Paris Mountain (Listed on the National Register of Historic Places), Poinsett, Sesquicentennial, Table Rock (listed on the National Register of Historic Places).

The US Forest Service also became involved with state parks in the early years, cooperating in the development of Aiken and Lee state natural areas and Oconee, Paris Mountain, Barnwell, and Sesquicentennial state parks. The Forest Service provided invaluable expertise in erosion control and reforestation, as many of these properties were not preserved wilderness, but abused and damaged farmland.

The philosophy of the early state parks was not unlike what this report recommends for the present. A 1936-37 report of the Commission of Forestry stated concern for the loss of “beautiful scenic spots” that would continue “unless steps are taken to stop it.” State parks were “to save the pieces; to preserve typical portions of our beautiful State for ourselves and posterity.” The report continued: “A State Park may be defined as an area of land possessing unusual natural beauty, historical interest, educational value, or recreational importance, which has been acquired by the State, developed, and to be preserved for the use of the people in securing wholesome recreation and education.”


By 1940, the Forestry Commission, now with substantially less federal involvement, added to its general principles factors such as locating parks within 50 miles of every person in the state, an optimum park size of 1,000 acres or greater, a two-area system for whites and blacks, and priority development for serving mass needs. But World War II ended the park development and several examples of unfinished works are still evident. (One example is at Greenwood State Recreation Area, where blocks of stone still remain where they were left. An extensive, interactive exhibit featuring the work of the CCC there and across the state has now been installed at the park.)

During the war years of travel restrictions and rationing, the parks provided recreation close to home for day use. Since there were a number of military bases in the state, military personnel used the parks for recreation as well as defense purposes. Myrtle Beach, Edisto Beach, and Hunting Island were garrisoned as lookout posts, and maneuvers were held at several parks.

Following the war, the nation’s economic state had improved and people were ready for the “good life,” which included recreation. Improvements were made to facilities neglected during the war and new features were added.

Visitors were no longer satisfied with primitive accommodations. Many cabins and group camps were electrified in 1946 and Cheraw's cabins even received refrigerators in 1947, a convenience that many homes did not have. The Forestry Commission soon recognized family camping as an important trend and planned some facilities. Overcrowding became evident at many facilities and began to be addressed.

In the 1950s, increased mobility and leisure time was brought about by road improvements, the abundance of automobiles, and relative affluence. South Carolina adopted a more utilitarian design philosophy for the parks in order to meet growing demand and began providing modern and convenient facilities. Substantial increases in visitation created a need for increased maintenance and upgrading. Mobility impacted recreation at the most desirable parks, often to the neglect of many local parks. Coastal parks became the locations of choice.

New technology and prosperity changed preferences for recreation. Alternative entertainment opportunities (movie theaters, radio and television) grew and, later, air conditioning of public places began to reduce the need for swimming and picnicking. The rise of municipal recreation facilities, such as swimming pools and tennis courts, along with country clubs and other private alternatives provided new competition for state parks, especially those serving mostly local needs.

The Forestry Commission also had to deal with the loss of federal support, dramatic increases in use, maintenance, and increased staffing, at the same time as use began to increase outside of the summer season. Commitments were made to keep fees low and to charge only for facilities that incurred direct operation costs, such as cabins and group camps. Potential revenue began to influence development, leading for example, to a pier at Myrtle Beach and a swimming pool at Rivers Bridge.

Because of its growing popularity, family camping came to be viewed as an opportunity for revenue enhancement and the 1955 Commission reports provide the first mention of family campgrounds. Some of these were relatively primitive with pit toilets at the campgrounds and showers provided at the swimming area bathhouses. Myrtle Beach hosted more than 50,000 campers in 1955. Demand soon forced the $1 per site fee to be raised at the beach parks.

The parks division received its first capital improvements bond issue in 1954-55 but, unlike later general obligation bonds, these revenue bonds had to be repaid through park revenue. The initial use was for construction of additional cabins primarily for revenue production. One problem with increasing revenue-producing facilities is that they tend to have higher initial costs, higher long-term maintenance needs, greater personnel demands, and require continual updating.

During the 1950s, the parks division also embarked on an experiment to bring about recreational development on parks through private funding. At Hunting Island, the “beach village” plan envisioned private homes on 130 lots offered for lease in 1951. This concept failed to generate the expected interest and the 30 lots that remain under private lease on the park still create management difficulties, limit public use, limit recreational development opportunities, and generally degrade the aesthetic value.

Increasing responsibilities of field personnel required a comprehensive training program. New employees were now schooled in maintenance, park procedures, and record keeping, while advanced training was offered in public relations and interpretation. The strong educational mission of the state parks was further demonstrated by the production of a nature interpretation radio program available statewide.

The earliest parks, which focused on cultural themes, were usually small and unmanned, with little cost to the state. But the previously stated goal of historical interpretation and preservation was disregarded in the 1950s, as revenue-producing activities were added to some facilities rather than increased enhancement or interpretation of the historical resource. A new trend emerged in 1960 with the addition of Old Dorchester (site of a thriving a pre-Revolutionary War village upstream on the Ashley River above Charleston) and Rose Hill, an antebellum plantation. Both sites were developed without the recreational elements typically associated with state parks up to that time. Their function was almost completely oriented toward preservation and interpretation. Also, they did not fit into the evolving focus on increasing revenue base.

The civil rights movement affected the parks as it did all areas of society. Separate facilities had been provided for white and black citizens, although they were never equal as claimed. In 1961, a class action suit was filed to integrate the parks and in July, an order was issued for the state parks to comply en toto with the Civil Rights Act of 1954. The SC Attorney General responded by closing all the parks in 1963. By the following summer, however, they were opened on a limited basis and, by 1966, they were returned to full operation under the leadership of Gov. Robert McNair and because of the people’s will and the political process. It was a true testament to the value of the parks system to the citizens of South Carolina. (For more information on this topic, see Stephen Lewis Cox, "The History of Negro State Parks in South Carolina, 1940-1963," MA Thesis, University of South Carolina, 1992.)

1967 to present

In 1967, the General Assembly passed legislation creating the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism (PRT), governed by the PRT Commission, whose primary functions were to promote tourism in the state, operate the state parks system, and assist local governments in the development of recreation facilities and programs. Specifically, the new agency was authorized to:

(a) promote, publicize and advertise the state’s tourist attractions;

(b) promote the general health and welfare of the people of the state by developing and expanding new and existing recreational areas, including the existing state park system;

(c) develop a coordinated plan utilizing to best advantage the natural facilities and resources of the state as a tourist attraction, recognizing that the state has within its boundaries mountainous areas and coastal plains, each of unsurpassed beauty, which with the easy accessibility now existing and being provided, has the potential of attracting many visitors in all seasons to take advantage of the natural scenery, the outdoor sports, including hunting, fishing and swimming, together with other recreational activities such as golfing, boating and sightseeing;

(d) to preserve and perpetuate our state’s rich historical heritage by acquiring and owning, recognizing, marking and publicizing areas, sites, buildings and other landmarks and items of national and statewide historical interest and significance to the history of our state.

This new directive gave the parks division the implied mandate to promote the parks as tourist magnets. At the same time, it caused the division to face a problem, similar to that faced by the National Park Service: to preserve natural and historic areas while providing for increased visitation and expanded recreational opportunities. These new directives paved the way for the concept of the resort park, a state-operated facility with a higher level of operations than that traditionally associated with state parks.

At the request of the new commission, the National Park Service completed a study of the park system in 1968, adapting the principles governing the national parks for the state parks. In general it was a restatement of the earlier principles from the 1930s. It recommended that only sites of the highest scenic, recreational, historic, scientific, and educational values and statewide significance be considered for state parks. It debunked the theory of distribution of state parks based on arbitrary distances (50 miles) and noted that park status must be based on unique or exceptional value. It also recommended that existing or proposed parks which are duplicative of parks in the vicinity, have characteristics of only local interest, or serve local needs should not be added to the state park system.

PRT also acquired planning and administration functions for federal Land and Water Conservation Funds (LWCF) in 1967 from the Department of Wildlife and Marine Resources. This required development of a state comprehensive outdoor recreation plan (SCORP) to be eligible for the funds. The new SCORP recommended the development of a wide variety of recreational sites, emphasizing comprehensive and broad-based recreational offerings. It supported local recreation needs and an even geographical distribution of sites. While the plan assumed that local governments would fill much of the need, the realities were that many rural areas, especially counties without “home rule,” were not in an economic or political position conducive to developing and operating recreational areas. Therefore, the state often stepped in to provide the local recreation services. Coupled with the large influx of federal funds for park acquisition and development, this led to the rapid growth of state parks. Sixteen new park properties were acquired in six years and twelve were opened to the public.

Federal funds encouraged the rapid acquisition and development of new parks, but did not provide for operating or staffing the parks. The problem was compounded when Charles Towne Landing was handed over to PRT at the conclusion of the State Tricentennial Celebration in 1970 and again during the US Bicentennial Celebration in 1976, when several historic sites were donated or sold to PRT.

Hickory Knob and Santee, the first parks branded “resorts,” were planned or evolved to offer a variety of non-traditional items such as special accommodations, golf, tennis, archery, skeet/trap shooting, meeting facilities, and restaurants. However, resort-type operations increased the maintenance and operations costs at such parks and brought on the need for more specialized employees.

Staffing at many of the new parks acquired in the 1970s came largely through reassignment of personnel from other parks. Also, several budget cuts in the late 1970s and early 1980s decreased park field personnel. This resulted in lower levels of staffing throughout the system and reduced levels of visitor service and maintenance.

To assist with increased costs, entrance fees were instituted at selected parks. It began in 1976 at Myrtle Beach and Dreher Island to control unnecessary traffic in the parks, but by 1982, ten other parks were collecting fees mainly for revenue enhancement.

The public accepted user fees almost without question, indicating a trend away from general taxes and toward the direct charging of fees to those benefiting most from the service. President Reagan's tax cuts of the early 1980s further emphasized this trend and the Land and Water Conservation Fund received severe cuts for state and local recreational development.

A major challenge came along in 1986, when the US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that government employees at all levels, except for certain exempt management and professional classifications, were entitled to overtime compensation for all work over 40 hours per week. Many park personnel had been working over 70 hours per week during the peak season, due to the increase in facilities and decrease in total staff over the previous decade.

The court ruling caused the immediate loss of man-hours to the park system equivalent to 71 full-time employees. The initial reaction was to drastically reduce the operating hours of all parks except those producing surplus revenue. The General Assembly responded by authorizing 62 new positions to bring most of the parks back to full operation. Thirteen of the smaller parks remained at reduced hours.

The court mandate did provide some positive benefits besides reduced employee workloads. Specially trained personnel could now be hired for maintenance and visitor services, leading to improvement in both operations and interpretive programming. It has helped increase the overall professionalism in the field positions.

In an effort to improve the state parks, the South Carolina State Park System adopted a strategic management plan in 1987. It was an in-house effort to look to the future, re-focus priorities, and concentrate scarce resources. A variety of long-range actions were recommended by the plan concerning the protection of natural and historic areas, recreational use, interpreting natural and historic features, acquisition needs, surplus land, and overall park assessments. A number of these actions have been completed as funding and staffing have allowed.

The state parks faced another challenge in 1989 when South Carolina received a direct hit from Hurricane Hugo, closing 16 state parks for varying periods of time. The hurricane hit the South Carolina coast from Folly Beach to Myrtle Beach and continued inland up the Cooper, Santee, Wateree, and Catawba basin. It caused approximately $4.5 million in damage at state parks, primarily to replace or repair equipment and facilities and to clean up debris.

By the 1990s, eco-tourism began to grow worldwide and nature-based tourism began to be recognized in South Carolina as an economic force, especially in rural areas. Most of the state parks now offer nature-based experiences, from hiking, bird watching, and nature programs to canoeing and backcountry camping. A state ad hoc committee, including several PRT staff, met several times to discuss issues related to nature-based tourism and, in 1994, formed the South Carolina Nature-Based Tourism Association. The popularity of nature-based activities offers the state parks opportunities to market to this market segment.

About the same time, heritage tourism was also recognized as a valuable asset in the rural areas of the state. Through grassroots efforts with PRT's assistance, the South Carolina Heritage Corridor was established, linking 14 counties from Charleston to Aiken to Oconee counties. A number of state parks are located in this corridor and have become major resources for the corridor as it continues to develop in its role of helping local communities capitalize on their own potential as diverse, unique destinations for tourists and other visitors.

Recreational trends in the 1990s include an aging society with more retirees, continued concern for the environment, more partnerships, new recreational equipment, increased transportation opportunities, and changes in work, recreation, and leisure patterns. Due to new work patterns (both spouses working, longer work hours, etc.), Americans are recreating closer to home, often taking a number of short trips rather than one long vacation. For some, air travel has increased opportunities for traveling long distances but vacationing for short periods of time (three to four days). Leisure travel is also being mixed with business travel more frequently than in the past. New sports and new equipment continue to change the way people recreate. For example, mountain biking, in-line skating, off-highway vehicles, jet skis, sporting clays, bass tournaments, and fly fishing are some activities that are on the rise; perhaps to be lasting trends, or just passing fads. Camping vehicles and trailers continue to get larger and campground users are demanding services often provided at private campgrounds such as sewer hook-ups and cable TV.

The State Park Service continues to adapt to meet these trends and economic realities, as well as to enhance its ability to act as steward and interpreter of the considerable cultural, historic and natural resources in the 80,000 acres under its management. Such programs as Discover Carolina, which brings more than 25,000 school children a year to the parks and the State House for tours and curriculum-based science and history programs, are a result of that effort. The environmental stewardship message also has been emphasized in the creation of the interactive education centers on the coast at Huntington Beach and Edisto Beach state parks, while the Jones Gap education center in the mountains continues to be popular for students and adults alike. The State Park System also is actively participating in helping to generate an understanding and appreciation of South Carolina’s major role in the Revolutionary War. One of the system’s most recent additions is Musgrove Mill State Historic Site, commemorating and interpreting a pivotal 1780 battle. The park on the Enoree River near Clinton opened in 2003.

H. Cooper Black Jr. Memorial Field Trial and Recreation Area, the newest South Carolina State Park, opened in 2006. This unique park offers 20 miles of equestrian trails, 7,000 acres of longleaf pine forests, and plays host to field trial and retriever competitions.