Discover Sandy Island’s hidden treasures of history, nature, culture, people

By Terry Massey ˙ January 28, 2020

A red-tailed hawk soars over the boat dock that departs the mainland for Sandy Island.

Capt. Rommy Pyatt points his small boat into the cold air and thick morning mist, but he knows the one-mile stretch to Sandy Island so well he could do it in his sleep. It’s not just his tour’s destination; it is his home.

“Growing up on the island, I couldn’t wait to move to the mainland and see the world,” said Pyatt, a Sandy Island native who owns and operates Tours De Sandy Island. “I joined the Air Force and served (overseas before retirement). I have been all over the world but I have never found another place like it. It’s so peaceful and tranquil, surrounded by water and nature. There’s nothing else like it and I am proud to call it my home.”

The 9,000-acre wildlife preserve, the largest inland, freshwater island on the East Coast, is situated between the Great Pee Dee and Waccamaw rivers. It is located just west of Brookgreen Gardens as the crow flies, but boat is the only way for humans to reach this tiny island of great natural and historical significance. In fact, the short boat ride from the mainland through the Sandy Island Channel is like taking a trip back in time.

“Not much changes on the island,” Pyatt said. “You see all the development over the years in Murrells Inlet, Litchfield, Pawleys Island, really from Myrtle Beach all the way to Georgetown, then you cross the river. …”

Capt. Rommy Pyatt makes the short boat trip across the Waccamaw River to Sandy Island.

The Flow of Time and Water

Much time and water have passed through the Waccamaw Neck since Pyatt’s ancestors labored against their will on the surrounding rice plantations and shipped South Carolina’s cash crop down-river to Winyah Bay in Georgetown.

But as he crosses the river in their distant wake, he feels a strong connection to the Gullah and Geechee cultures that continue on Sandy Island Village, and to the generations before him who kept those traditions alive.

Purchased and settled after the Civil War by freedmen who once worked in its rice fields, Sandy Island represents a resilient people who transformed their isolated outpost into a tight-knit community that still stands today.

“I don’t use the term ‘slaves’ because it’s demeaning and it doesn’t accurately represent what they did,” said Pyatt. “I call them architects and engineers because of all the things they did to operate a working rice plantation. Their labor was free, but they created a lot of wealth in this area.”

Despite earning its name from the sandy banks that surround it, Sandy Island was one of America’s most fertile rice plantations. The area was one of the biggest exporters of rice, and biggest exploiters of human beings.

At its peak, an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 enslaved Africans labored on Sandy Island in the heat, humidity and the Lowcountry’s harshest terrain to cultivate, harvest, process and export Carolina Gold rice to the world.

Pyatt tells how West Africans with expertise in rice production were specifically targeted by plantation owners for their knowledge and skills. They knew how to flood the rice fields to protect the plants from breaking before harvest time, how to test the water’s salt content by taste alone, and how to outfit the oxen with special boots to prevent them from sinking in the pluff mud.

“It still blows my mind that they were able to accomplish so much under such horrible circumstances,” Pyatt said. “They were innovative and worked hard, but no one wants to be somebody’s property.”

No amount of time and water can completely wash away the stain of America’s original sin, however, Sandy Island serves as a testament to the human spirit’s ability to survive, overcome and transform hardships into happiness.

Sandy Island Village residents tie off their boats at the dock on the Waccamaw River.

Landing on Sandy Island

Pulling into the dock at Sandy Island Village feels more like arriving at a private marina for family and friends. With a population of only 32 permanent residents, most descendants of the original settlers, it sort of is.

“This place is like ‘Cheers’,” joked Pyatt, “everybody knows your name.”

And often shares it. The Sandy Island phone book (if there was one) could fit on a postcard with a handful of last names, like Brown, Washington, Weathers, and of course, Pyatt – the same ones you can read on grave markers in the community’s three cemeteries.

The only problem with the “Cheers” analogy on this chilly winter day is the absence of patrons. The Prince Washington School Boat, named for the island’s founding father and the only one of its kind in South Carolina, has already ferried the children across the river to their bus. Those with jobs on the mainland have long since made the crossing in boats for the work day.

Pyatt’s General Store, owned by Pyatt’s mother, Beulah, is closed. The volunteer fire station, the old school building, the New Bethel Baptist Church and homes – all seemingly vacant, casting a silence over the island that can’t be recreated on the mainland.

The lone signs of life are the breathtakingly beautiful flora and fauna – twisting live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, towering long-leaf pines that have withstood the tests of storms and time, cypresses, red maples and other native trees. Around Indian Lake and the interior wetlands and woodlands, wild grapevines, berry bushes and seasonal wildflowers are scattered throughout the forest, and earth stars magically appear from sandy soil.

Sand-covered roads, hiking trails and connecting creeks and swamps crisscross this peaceful piece of paradise, but much of it is off limits to humans. That’s one reason Sandy Island’s diverse wildlife population thrives on dry land (deer, bobcats, coyotes, black bears), in the air (hawks, eagles, herons, egrets) and in the water (an endless list of freshwater and saltwater species).

Under strict hunting and fishing regulations by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and under the protection of The Nature Conservancy, which owns and oversees a large portion of the island, Sandy Island serves as a success story for environmental and cultural preservation amid encroaching development just across the rivers. It seems protecting Sandy Island has been a lot like life on the island itself – never easy.

Capt. Rommy Pyatt arrives at Sandy Island Village with his family’s store in the background.

Saving Sandy Island

From local Native American tribes to European explorers, many have sought to overcome the challenges of settling the Waccamaw Neck. Hurricanes, floods and wildfires have wreaked havoc on those trying to co-exist with Mother Nature, whose beauty and fury are on full display for folks on Sandy Island. Recent storms and climate change have created flooding issues and infused saltwater into the river system that remain threats to the island.

There have been dark days for sure, but 1965 proved to be a year of enlightenment in more ways than one. Not only was Sandy Island wired for electricity for the first time, court-ordered desegregation allowed children to leave the island’s one-room schoolhouse, built in 1932 by philanthropist Archer Huntington, to attend public schools across the river. The new educational and social opportunities started the first wave of natives to the mainland.

But the biggest danger to Sandy Island’s way of life came in the mid-1990s with a proposal to build a bridge connecting the island to the mainland. The deal that sounded too good to be true turned out to be just that – an effort by developers to slip in the island’s back door. Only later did residents learn that the plan to harvest timber was a front for building a private golf community on the island, and the residents were not invited.

“At first everybody was on board with the bridge because people would love to be able to drive their cars to the mainland,” Pyatt said. “Then we found out what was really going on. The money they would have made from the timber wasn’t even enough to pay for the bridge, and the people of Sandy Island would only be allowed to use the bridge for emergencies and funerals. We were able to get together with different groups and stop it.”

Residents of St. Helena Island, who experienced a similar invasion by developers, offered their expertise in battling the bridge, as well as environmental conservation and heritage preservation groups. But perhaps the biggest impact was made by one of Sandy Island’s tiniest residents – the red cockaded woodpecker. The endangered bird nests in the island’s long leaf pines, and its presence provided legal grounds for fighting building permits.

Prolonged legal battles resulted in a surprising settlement from an unlikely source – the S.C. Department of Transportation, which spent $10 million to purchase the land and create Sandy Island Preserve as mitigation for future road projects. The Nature Conservancy added $1 million and agreed to manage it, forever protecting the island from unwanted development. The people of Sandy Island fought to save their land and way of life, and won.

“Everybody was happy with the outcome, but it bothered a lot of people that it took a woodpecker to stop the bridge,” Pyatt said. “Folks felt like they were more worried about a bird than the people of Sandy Island.”

Sand-packed roads weave through pristine wetlands and woodlands on Sandy Island.

A Bridge Without Beams

Pyatt pilots his boat back to the mainland, a return trip he has made many times. Like generations before and after him, the initial appeal to leave the island eventually wears off and gives way to a call to come home.

“Time progresses, things change,” Pyatt said. “The kids that grow up here can’t wait to leave and live in the modern world. Sometimes they move away and realize how lucky they are to be from Sandy Island and they come back.

“I remember talking to my cousins about leaving the island when we got older. My dad and my uncles would always say, ‘Y’all are living on a gold mine and don’t even know it.’ It took me a long time to see the gold mine.”

In 2005, Pyatt heeded the call and started Tours De Sandy Island as part business, part ambassadorship. His six-passenger pontoon boat and new 32-passenger tour boat serve as de facto bridges to the outside world.

“So many people have moved to Horry and Georgetown counties over the years they don’t know Sandy Island exists,” he said. “I have people ask me about it and I want them to see how beautiful it is and learn our story.”

Pyatt, who offers guided hiking, kayaking, fishing, history and photography tours, initially received some resistance to the idea of bringing boatloads of tourists to the serene and secretive island, but he won folks over with his respect for the island’s culture and history. He also promotes other businesses on the island, like Wilma’s Cottage bed and breakfast and Pyatt’s General Store, which stock souvenirs and display art that reflect the island’s heritage.

“Growing up the kids at school used to make fun of us for living on Fantasy Island or Gilligan’s Island,” Pyatt recalled. “They called us Gullah and Geechee. Now I’m like, ‘You can call me Gullah and Geechee all you want.’ I’m proud to be Gullah and Geechee and I will do anything I can to help the community and the people of the island.”

IF YOU GO: Contact Tours De Sandy Island at 843-408-7187, or online at Reservations are required.