The Sullivan's Island that greeted 18-year old Edgar Allan Poe was remote and uninhabited. In 1827 Poe was bound for his Army post at Ft. Moultrie, which stood guard at the mouth of Charleston Harbor, protecting the city from buccaneers, the British and Yankees.
It was also the setting of Poe's short story "The Gold-Bug". These days on the three-milelong barrier island you'll find Victorian cottages, quaint shops and seafood restaurants, a lighthouse and a Revolutionary War fort. It’s a perfect destination for people to relax and indulge.
One of the prettiest beach community retreats on the South Carolina coast, Sullivan Island offers visitors and residents a stroll down Middle Street in the small downtown district featuring boutiques, low country and fine dining restaurants and one-of-a-kind watering holes. There are no flashing neon signs and shopping malls, zero golf courses and not even a stoplight.
And that's the way the islanders plan to keep it. Residents get around on foot, on bikes or in golf carts. When they need to leave the island, they travel across an old-fashioned drawbridge. Sullivan's Island has limited short-term rentals and there are no hotels, motels or inns. However, there are plenty of accommodations in close-by Charleston and historic Mount Pleasant.
The island was once known as O'Sullivan's Island, a nod to Captain Florence O'Sullivan. Stationed here as a lighthouse keeper in the late 17th century, O'Sullivan was captain of one of the ships in the first fleet to establish English and Irish settlements at Charleston.
The island also was the disembarkation port for more than 40 percent of the slaves traded to the British colonies via the Middle Passage. It is estimated that nearly half of all African-Americans had ancestors that passed through Sullivan's Island. On July 26, 2008 the Toni Morrison Society dedicated a small bench on Sullivan's Island to the memory of the slave trade.
The first fort on Sullivan's Island was still under construction when Commodore Sir Peter Parker and nine warships attacked it on June 28, 1776. After a nine-hour battle, the ships were forced to retire. Charleston was saved from British occupation, and the fort was named in honor of its commander, Colonel William Moultrie.
Its history covers 171 years of seacoast defense including the firing onto Fort Sumter during the first battle of the Civil War. Today, a visitor to Fort Moultrie moves steadily backward in time from the World War II Harbor entrance Control Post to the site of the palmetto-log fort of 1776.
Poe was stationed at the fort for 13 months, after which he penned “The Gold-Bug.” It tells the story of William Legrand’s wandering Sullivan Island and discovering a rare bug made of gold. The tale quickly became one of the most popular of his works, surpassed only by "The Raven" as a commercial success. Sullivan's Island's library, located in a refurbished military battery, is named after the poet, and streets such as Raven and Gold Bug Drive commemorate his works.
On the northern end of the island adjacent to Breach Inlet, you come across an area called Marshall Battery. A history marker relates that the 1864 Civil War submarine, the celebrated H.L. Hunley, passed through this channel on its way to sink the USS Housatonic.
The island is home to a most unusual lighthouse. A triangular tower of steel and concrete sheathed in aluminum built in 1962, the lighthouse replaced the original structure built in 1848 and rebuilt in 1872. Modern and air-conditioned, it is the only lighthouse in the United States with an elevator. Originally equipped with a 28-million candlepower light, it was downgraded to a little more than one million candlepower, but can still be seen 28 miles out to sea.
Middle Street offers a bounty of restaurants at which to enjoy outdoor dining and the ocean breezes. High Thyme is a cozy island bistro with dim lighting and votive candles. It serves up sumptuous seafood offerings, as well as several chicken, beef, and vegetarian dishes that boast a Southeast Asian influence. As an added bonus on Tapas Tuesday, impressive halfpriced wines are available by the glass.
Over at Poe's Tavern the walls are lined with posters and paintings of the author himself. He is depicted in photos, watercolor, and oil, ranging in style from impressionist to realist to stained glass. Patrons enjoy congregating on the large front porch with a favorite brew, handpicked from a selection of over 40.
Menu favorites include specialty tacos, quesadillas and its famous burgers - one arrives with a fried egg! All are named after various Poe short stories. The Pit & Pendulum is topped with applewood bacon and cheddar cheese. The Amontillado is crowned with guacamole, pico de gallo, jalapeno jack, and chipotle sour cream crown. The Starving Artist burgers are any of the Poe's burgers served without a bun. Between the wealth of beers and the burgers, you get the feeling Edgar Allen Poe's spirit lives on.