The Bridge to Edisto Island, South Carolina

With only one road in and one road out over the Dawhoo River, Edisto Island -a barrier island between Savannah and Charleston- is a place that seems hidden from the world in many ways. That’s great for tourists and vacationers! Unfortunately, its detachment from the rest of South Carolina has presented the island’s inhabitants with many difficulties over the years.

The McKinley Washington Jr. Bridge to Edisto Island. Photo taken December 30, 2022.

I spent the week after Christmas on vacation in Edisto Island with my parents and my six-year-old niece. It was my first time back to the island in nearly a decade. I took some pictures around where I spent the week after Christmas on vacation in Edisto Island with my parents and my six-year-old niece. It was my first time back to the island in nearly a decade. I took some pictures of what I found interesting on the trip and I’ll write about them periodically. This is part three of the loose series; read parts one and two here and here.

Edisto Island, as it appeared in Robert Mills’ 1825 South Carolina State Atlas.

Edisto Island, the town of Edisto Beach, and the Edisto River took their names from the Edistow people, a sub-tribe of the Cusabo Indians who were early inhabitants of the area. In 1521, the Spanish explorer Francisco deGordillo landed on the island and named it Oristo after the area’s Native American name. DeGordillo established a mission near Peters Point, but it didn’t last long, and settlers were sparse until 1666. That year, King Charles II sent Robert Sanford and six planters to survey the island.

The north side of Edisto Island as seen on a 1918 United States. Army. Corps of Engineers map. Image courtesy the University of South Carolina’s Government Information and Maps Department

Reports were glowing, and Edisto received its first English settlement four years later. Early attempts to grow rice failed due to the island’s salty waters, but early planters were finally successful at growing indigo. In 1714, the monarchy approved the construction of the first bridge to the island1. For most of its history, accessing Edisto Island meant using a succession of wooden bridges and ferries at the island’s southeastern tip at Peters Point. Around 1810, planter William Seabrook built a plantation home near a branch of the Edisto River. Soon after, he established a ferry service on the tributary, which was given the name of Steamboat Creek. 

Tabby pavement on Edisto Island. Photo taken December 29, 2022.

Here where things are more developed, I think we have a tendency to take the absence of steamboats for granted. We also probably tend to forget how easy it is to access the places we live. I know I do! My own forty-acre neighborhood features two methods of ingress and egress. The first leads to Jackson Street, a major east/west thoroughfare through the city and county, and another leads to a rural farm road that ends at Jackson Street after a fifth of a mile. The roads are paved and wide, and travel is a simple proposition- by car, I’m mere minutes away from anything I might need.

Edisto Island is much different: before the days of permanent bridges suitable for vehicular traffic, the place was only accessible to vehicles during low tide. People had to drive across the salt marshes atop beds of discarded oyster shells! But shells make for good pavement, especially when mixed with lime and water to create a material called tabby. Around 1920, vacationers started flocking to the island to establish primitive summer homes on the beach. That year saw the construction of the first bridge to the island over the Dawhoo River, a swing-span that featured two sections that swung open like a door to allow for the passage of watercraft. A tender manually operated the bridge, which was so narrow that only one lane of vehicular traffic could pass at a time2. At least it was better than driving over oyster shells.

Wescott Road. Photo taken December 30, 2022.

That first bridge connected to Wescott Road, which served as the only way for people to access much of Edisto Island for centuries. Little more than an oak-lined dirt pathway, the road got its name from a nearby plantation3. Local lore insists that Wescott Road is part of the old King’s Highway, an early highway laid out between 1650 and 1735 by order of King Charles II to connect Charleston and Boston4. Today, a brief segment of the old lane that measures two-fifths of a mile is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the road is maintained by Charleston County and is still drivable.

A modern segment of SC-174 that overtook the majority of Wescott Road. Photo taken December 29, 2022.

A new causeway that overtook Wescott Road and connected the bridge to the Edisto Island post office was completed in 19385. It was designated as South Carolina Highway 174, and now it’s also known as the Edisto Island National Scenic Byway. The highway spans 13.5 miles from the bridge to the northeastern corner of Edisto Beach.

Looking west at the east side of the 1950 Dawhoo River Bridge. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Although it provided more reliable island access than any previous alternatives, the 1920 swing bridge was dangerous. In 1946, three people plunged to their deaths from the structure when it swung open to allow two boats to pass6. In 1950, thrifty officials replaced the bridge with a twenty-eight-year-old, 240-foot-long swing span they floated to the island from US-17’s Savannah River7.

A detail of the bridge tender’s shack. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

The new bridge was outdated from the moment it was installed. It quickly gained a reputation for spectacular mechanical failures that deprived Edisto islanders of the chance to come and go as they pleased! Nevertheless, a state transportation department employee named Dowling Garvin served as its tender for many years, operating the bridge from a 10×12 wooden shack attached to its girders8. In 1982, bridge was finally slated for replacement.

Of course, it took many years for the bridge to actually be replaced- different governmental agencies struggled to coordinate their efforts as inevitable questions about the impact a new span would have on the environment led the process to be paused repeatedly9. Meanwhile, the bridge’s age, width, deterioration, and scant eight-foot clearance above the water landed it as South Carolina’s eighth-most important bridge to address in 198410.

The 1993 bridge was completed just east of the former roadway and swing bridge. Photo taken December 30, 2022.

The South Carolina Coastal Council finally approved the state highway department’s request to replace the old bridge with a 65-foot fixed-span bridge in 199011. At $16.5 million ($34 million today), the new bridge was completed and dedicated on September 25, 199312. It represented a vast improvement over any previous crossing!

A catamaran passes under the 1993 McKinley Washington Jr. Bridge to Edisto Island. Photo taken December 30, 2022.

Named after the state senator who advocated for its completion, The McKinley Washington, Jr. Bridge was more than twice as wide as the old span. At nearly a mile long and fifty-four feet wide, the bridge rises eighty-one feet above sea level at its highest point. That’s more than enough to accommodate any passing vessels without encumbering motorists crossing the river, and the bridge was designed to accommodate four lanes of traffic if that volume was ever needed13.

A 270-foot segment of the 1950 Dawhoo Bridge, now a fishing pier. Photo taken December 30, 2022.

After the new bridge was completed, most of its predecessor was scrapped and used as an artificial reef14: In 1994, six barges of concrete pilings, roadbed, and supports that weighed more than 1,200 tons were sunk eight miles off the North Edisto Inlet, while the rest was taken two miles further out in deeper water15. A portion of the 1950 bridge that measures nearly three-hundred feet was retained to serve as a fishing pier. About a third of a mile of the original highway provides access to it.

The remains of the 1950 bridge to Edisto Island, looking southwest. Photo taken December 30, 2022.

In person, its obvious that the pier was once part of the old bridge- some of its original railings still exist, along with the old road’s solid yellow stripes! A guy was fishing off the end of the bridge on the day I visited the old crossing. He hadn’t caught anything, but I’ve heard that redfish and speckled trout abound from the bridge. The pier it forms juts out about two-hundred feet over the Dawhoo River, but there’s little sign of the old alignment headed south towards the island aside from the paths of the power lines that cross the river and eventually meet up with the modern highway.

The red line represents the old routing of SC-174, east of the current highway. Satellite imagery courtesy Google, copyright IndianaMap Framework Data. Landsat /Copernicus, Maxar Technologies, USDA/FPAC/GEO. 

Unfortunately, Google satellite views aren’t that helpful in discerning SC-174’s old path through the salt marshes. Nevertheless, here’s how it appears to have crossed the river based on what I’ve determined. At its widest point, the path of the modern bridge veers about six-hundred feet east of the old alignment.

Photo taken December 30, 2022.

As with many old highway alignments, the fishing pier’s blacktop flows smoothly into the access road formed by the old highway, which Google labels Dawho Road. I didn’t see any signage that indicated that name: the road to the pier seems to be a continuation of Rosa Scott Road to the east. Here’s a segment of the old road, looking south towards the island.

Old SC-174 looking southbound. That’s my niece there. Photo taken December 30, 2022.

The old road is maintained, but it’s seen better days- especially in comparison to the massive bridge that looms over it from fifty feet away. Nevertheless, it still serves a purpose as it provides access to the fishing pier, a dock and a boat ramp.

The McKinley Washington, Jr. Bridge -in the background at the right of the photo- seen from Steamboat Landing near the Seabrook Plantation. Photo taken December 28, 2022.

There is no Wal-Mart on Edisto Island. There’s no CVS, Walgreens, or Rite-Aid. Frankly, the only chains are a handful of Enmarket convenience stores, a Subway sandwich shop in one of them, and a small Food Lion supermarket. The place is remote, but residents and tourists alike wouldn’t have it any other way. Fortunately, the McKinley Washington Bridge ensures that islanders have unfettered access to the nearby county seats of Walterboro and Charleston for any accommodation they might need in an emergency.

The McKinley Washington Bridge in front of the Dawhoo River Landing near sunset, from the remains of the 1950 swing bridge. Photo taken December 30, 2022.

The thirty-year-old McKinley Washington Bridge is massive, but it’s unobtrusive and graceful. Most importantly, it benefits the people of Edisto Island without taking away from its character, which remains an intriguing blend of the modern, the ancient, and the rest that lies somewhere in between. That Lowcountry combination of features is why I love the place, and I’m glad I got the chance to return.

Sources Cited
1 The Spanish were the first settlers on Edisto Island (1994, February 25). The Press and Standard. p. 54.
2 Spencer, Charles (2008). Edisto Island, 1861 to 2006: Ruin, Recovery and Rebirth. The History Press.
3 Puckette, C.C. (1978). Edisto, A Sea Island Principality. Seafoth Publications [Cleveland]. Book.
4 Wescott Road, Charleston County (W. Of S.C. Hwy. 174, Edisto Island). The South Carolina Department of Archives and History. Web. Retrieved January 9, 2023.
5 Edisto Causeway Work Resumed (1938, February 17). The State [Columbia]. p. 8.
6 At Least 20 Persons Victims Of Violent Deaths In The Carolinas (1946, January 14). The Statesville Record And Landmark. p. 7 7 SC Salvages Old Bridges To Use Again (1954, August 10). The State [Columbia]. p. 16.
8 Hamrick, T. (1973, February 25). Bridge Sentry. Tempo: The Carolina Magazine [Columbia]. pp. 65-66.
9 One Agency Trips Another (1985, April 25). The Walterboro Press and Standard. p. 2.
10 Top 10. South Carolina bridges most in need of replacements (1984, July 2). The Greenville News. p. 12.
11 Huckaby, L. (1990, July 13). Battery Creek bridge plan receives accolades. The Beaufort Gazette. pp. 1, 11.
12 Edisto Island to get new bridge (1993, September 23). The Greenville News. p. 4.
13 Edisto Island bridge has been recycled into artificial fishing reef (1994, February 1). The Gaffney Ledger. p. 8.
14 Robertson, P. (1993, November 14). Reef association formed for Charleston-area islands. The State [Columbia]. p. 14C.
14 McKinley Washington Jr. Bridge (2021). Web. Retrieved December 31, 2022.

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