A Bridge Too Far

In December, a South Carolina government agency dashed developers’ hopes for a 750-foot bridge from the mainland to Sandy Island, saying plans to log the island’s longleaf pine forests threatened the red-cockaded woodpecker. More grateful than the woodpeckers, however, are 130 members of the “Gullah” community, who have remained isolated on the coastal river delta island for more than a century.

Gullahs descend from West Africans brought to South Carolina to work as slaves on rice plantations. Several Gullah communities, speaking a dialect traced back to the region that is now Angola, still exist among the state’s islands. But the 4.5-by-7-mile Sandy Island is one of only two without bridges to the mainland.

Along with environmentalists, Sandy Island’s Gullah residents oppose a bridge because they fear developers (including textile magnate Roger Milliken) will cover the island with resorts. One prospective development plan outlined a proposal for a resort with equestrian trails, golf courses, a marina, and enough condominiums to house nearly 20,000.

One resident, Wilhelmena Pyatt, 41, remembers how the island lacked electricity, phones, and regular ferry service when she was a child. Like most Sandy Island adults, she rides a small boat every day to the mainland. There, she picks up her car at a parking lot and drives to work in nearby Myrtle Beach. Children take ferries to coastal schools. “You know everyone on the island. Even children who have ended up leaving find time to come back to visit.” A bridge, she says, would change everything.

Pyatt says community members expect a bridge will be built some day, but they hope it can be used to promote nature-based tourism. “That will allow us to continue our natural way of living.” Besides, Pyatt points out, a bridge would mean a shorter commute: “I could drive my car to my house,” she says.