Sitting astride the confluence of Winyah Bay and Sampit River, present-day Georgetown constantly calls to mind its storied past. Long the most important South Carolina port north of Charleston, the town retains the character of bygone years alongside a new spirit of success. Fortunate cruising boaters who make Georgetown a port of call will find a quiet, beautiful, and historic town waiting to greet them.
Prior to the Civil War, Georgetown was the seat of a fabulously rich rice culture still remembered with pride and romance. Go quietly as you pass, and perhaps you may still hear the delicate tinkle of crystal glasses at an elegant garden party or the hoofbeats of the master's horse as he rides to check his fields in the early-morning mist. The heritage of the rice culture is an almost tangible entity here, and you cannot fully appreciate Georgetown and its surrounding streams without an understanding of this remarkable era.
Anyone who takes a few moments to study the charts will realize that Georgetown is ideally situated to take advantage of waterborne commerce. The waters of the Black, Pee Dee, Waccamaw, and Sampit Rivers all converge at the port to form Winyah Bay. Together, these waters present a multitude of cruising opportunities for the pleasure boater. The various streams for the most part quite deep and easily navigable offer many miles of isolated cruising and a host of overnight anchorage opportunities, as well as a fair share of delightful surprises. Just when it seems that you are truly in the middle of nowhere, the next bend of the river or creek reveals one of the fabulous plantation houses that have survived the trials of the years. It would take a very hard-bitten boater not to be smitten by the charms of Georgetown's rivers.
Winyah Bay provides reliable access to the open sea and cruising opportunities of its own. Good facilities are found on the southern shore, and side trips to several historical sites are possible.
The waters surrounding Georgetown offer the state's widest array of cruising opportunities north of Charleston. It's enough to set any true cruiser to dreaming. The newly rebuilt town waterfront is simply bursting with shoreside attractions, including a potpourri of fine restaurants and interesting shops. The waterfront, coupled with the wonderful homes of Georgetown's historical district, should inspire every boater to put a red circle around this delightful port of call. Those who rush by without making the acquaintance of Georgetown and its rivers will miss one of the greatest cruising opportunities in all of South Carolina.
What a delight it is to spend an evening, a week, or a month docked on the Georgetown waterfront! Snug in your slip, docked in the shadow of the Rice Museum's historic clock tower, you might be excused for forgetting that you are in the twentieth century. Fortunate indeed is the cruising boater who finds his way along Sampit River to Georgetown.
After those glowing words, it must be noted that Georgetown has one problem for visitors. A large paper mill is located on the southwestern portion of the Georgetown loop along the lower Sampit River. Fortunately, the prevailing winds tend to keep the worst of the smell away from the city, but it's only fair to note that the mill is there. When the fickle wind chooses not to cooperate, the smell of progress is not so sweet.
Downtown Georgetown and Harborwalk
Upstream from Harborwalk Marina, the Georgetown waterfront has undergone a remarkable transformation. Where there was once only a small city pier that did not allow overnight dockage, most of the town waterfront has been magnificently renovated and incorporated into a lovely boardwalk complex which goes by the name of Harborwalk. The large green area in the center of the development is known as Francis Marion Park. Two additional parks are located at either end of the Harborwalk complex.
Once the hook is down, it's a simple matter to dinghy ashore and tie up to one of the floating piers before exploring the downtown area. Protection from inclement weather is quite good.
Keeping pace with the Harborwalk complex is a wonderful revitalization of Georgetown's downtown business district. Thanks to this district and the community's enchanting historic residential section (see below), Georgetown can boast of attractions second to none in northeastern South Carolina.
Front Street runs parallel to the downtown Georgetown waterfront. This byway has been completely rebuilt over the last several years, with wider sidewalks and numerous planters. Front Street is also home to many fine shops and restaurants.
Visitors interested in antiques and Revolutionary structures should check out the Kaminski House Museum (1003 Front Street). Filled with many period treasures, it features a fifteenth-century Spanish wedding chest and a Chippendale dining-room table, handcrafted in Charleston. The old home's interior features original floorings and moldings.
Prince George Episcopal Church, Winyah, is located on the corner of Broad and Highmarket Streets. The congregation dates from 1721, but the building was finished in 1750. With its cracked bricks and mortar, the old church seems to exude an almost tangible atmosphere of age. Stroll through the graveyard to the left of the church. It affords an excellent view of the tower, added in 1824. Among the graveyard's interesting headstones are many dating from the 1700s. Finally, take a moment to go inside. The doors are usually open, and respectful visitors are welcome. Standing amid the old-style box pews, one can almost picture the planters and their wives dressed in their best Sunday broadcloth and taffeta, listening soberly to a long sermon.
The Henning-Miller House, circa 1800, is located at the corner of Duke and Screven Streets. Like many Georgetown homes, this fine old building has its ghost story. The spirit, however, is most helpful. Tradition claims that during the British occupation of Georgetown, an officer staying at the house fell to his death on the main stairway. He is said to have lost his footing during a nighttime alarm. It is whispered that to this day, his ghost firmly grasps the shoulder of anyone who might trip on the stairs, saving that person from a fall.
The charming Waterman-Kaminski House is located at 620 Highmarket Street. This old home, circa 1770, was the scene of two tragedies. There is the sad story of a young boy who pined away at an early age. His thin little spirit is well known. The upstairs room opening onto the central dormer was the scene of another kind of tragedy. An old tale speaks of a young girl who was in love with a sea captain but who discovered her lover to be untrue. Heartbroken, she took her own life in the upstairs room. On summer nights, her ghost is said to appear in the dormer window, patiently watching for the return of her faithless lover's ship.
The Winyah Indigo Society Hall is located on the corner of Prince and Cannon Streets. Organized in 1740 as a social club for wealthy planters, the Winyah Indigo Society eventually established a free school, founded a library, and served as both a business and social organization. The society survives to this day and still meets on a regular basis.
Just across the street from the Winyah Indigo Society Hall is the Morgan-Ginsler House. This building was used during the Civil War as a hospital for Union soldiers. It is said that strange noises have been heard from time to time in the dining room. There are those who claim that the ghostly noises are the sounds of Satan driving back the souls of the unfortunate soldiers who died there, making them relive their last few moments of misery on earth. This writer has a deep suspicion that a Southern sympathizer was the originator of this tale.
Two of Georgetown's historical points of interest are at the foot of Cannon Street fronting onto Sampit River. To the left is the Red Store-Tarbox Warehouse. In 1812, Theodosia Burr Alston, daughter of politician Aaron Burr, sailed from the warehouse docks on an ill-fated voyage to New York. The ship on which she sailed ran into a fierce gale off North Carolina and was apparently lost at sea or wrecked somewhere on the coast. Although there has been much speculation about her fate (one compelling version of her story is found in Charles Harry Whedbee's Legends of the Outer Banks and Tar Heel Tidewater), nobody really knows what happened to Theodosia.
Across the street from the warehouse is the Heriot-Tarbox House, one of the loveliest homes in Georgetown and the setting for what may well be the area's most touching legend.
Legend of the Heriot-Tarbox House
Some years before the Civil War, a wealthy family lived in this beautiful homeplace by the river. They had only one child, a daughter, on whom they showered all their love and attention. The girl was closely guarded by her parents to ensure a proper upbringing. She grew into a great beauty and was known by all the town's citizens for her gracious manners and shy nature.
The young enchantress was very fond of pets and always kept several dogs of rare pedigree. One day as she was throwing balls into the yard to see which dog was the swiftest retriever, a young officer from a ship docked at her father's warehouse happened to walk by and was captivated by the girl's loveliness. He retrieved one of the balls that had fallen nearby and carried it up the broad steps to the shy maiden. Perhaps it was love at first sight. Before long, the two began to see each other on a regular basis, and their relationship blossomed with the passing of the days.
The young woman's tutor became worried about the seriousness of the affair and spoke to the girl's father, who was outraged. What made a common ship's officer think he could pay court to his daughter? He marched straight on board the ship and demanded that the captain forbid any further contact between the two lovers. Returning home, the father informed his daughter that she was never to see the young man again.
The captain did not take kindly to the father's demands, especially since the officer in question was his favorite nephew. Perhaps he aided the young couple. At any rate, the two lovers found a way to meet. When all those within the house were asleep, the girl would put a light in her upstairs window, and the young officer would know that all was safe. The two would then meet in the garden for a few brief but tender stolen moments.
The young woman would wed no other man and continued to live in her parents' house. Whenever the officer's ship was in port, the couple held their romantic trysts. Then, without explanation, the officer's visits suddenly ceased.
The heartbroken girl continued to place a lamp in her window every night. After a time, the light came to be a symbol of the love that she could never forget, yet that was doomed never to be. Eventually, she became a recluse and was rarely seen outside of the house. Following her parents' death, the servants and the dogs were her only companions.
As the Civil War drew its dark wings about Georgetown, stealthy blockade runners used the light in the window of the Cannon Street house for navigation. The saddened but loyal woman still faithfully placed the lamp in the window every night. Most thought she was doing what she could to aid the Southern cause. Only a few knew the real reason for this strange practice.
It was not long after the war that neighbors, alerted by barking dogs, discovered the poor woman's body in the house. She had apparently died of a heart attack. Some might say that it was a broken heart.
In the years that followed, many families lived in the old house. Strange noises were heard from time to time, and a light was often seen shining from the upstairs window. One resident even saw the form of a beautiful girl walking down the front steps into the garden. Others told of seeing a ghostly visage surrounded by barking dogs. The house was finally abandoned for many years, during which it acquired a sinister reputation.
In the 1930s, the house was restored to its former glory. It became one of the great showplaces of the Georgetown historical district. Its whitewashed walls and bright windows now look proudly over the harbor, recalling the grandeur of lost days. But there are many who will tell you that the sad ghost still maintains her lonely vigil each night from the upstairs window.
Lest you think this story too fanciful, several years ago the late owner herself told this writer that there was indeed "a ghost in the attic." While the spirit never appeared to her, she had seen the lights on the second floor many times. Even on a warm summer morning, this tale seemed to bring a bit of a chill to the air.