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Myrtle Beach; and its strand of pearls.

During the summer of 1901, in the steambath heat that enveloped the little town of Conway, South Carolina, a group of rumpled passengers sat patiently on the scarred wooden benches of an old railroad car. Finally the secondhand engine, Black Maria, chugged reluctantly out of the station. Clouds of smoke and cinders blew through the open windows, blackening the riders' faces and burning small holes in their clothes. Despite the discomfort, the travelers began to laugh and talk excitedly, their spirits buoyed by thoughts of the cool dip in the ocean awaiting them at the end of their journey.

The hardy vacationers were bound for the new Sea Side Inn, 15 miles from Conway. The timber company that owned the railroad-and the land for miles around-had just finished building the oceanfront hotel. In honor of the resort's grand opening, the developers sponsored a contest to name the fledgling community. The myrtle plants growing wild along the dunes provided the inspiration for the winning entry, Myrtle Beach.

Like any new enterprise, the resort was something of a gamble. In those days most people still considered coastal South Carolina's gently rolling dunes and wide, flat beaches as little more than sandy wastelands. As late as 1910, oceanfront lots sold for $25 and the developer threw in a second lot free to buyers who built cottages costing $500 or more. But each year, more and more people found their way to the beach. Some began to build summer houses, and by the time our rail passengers arrived, a small settlement had grown up. With the addition of the hotel, a bathhouse, and a dance pavilion, a resort was born.

And what a resort.

The waterslides, amusement parks, and giant polka-dotted mushrooms of modern-day Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, may be a far cry from the sophistication of Palm Beach, but that doesn't stop 12 million visitors from spending more than $1.5 billion there each year. Midway visitors in T-shirts and cutoff shorts, golfers in Sans-aBelt slacks, or beachcombers in vanishing-point swimsuits-they all come in droves, maneuvering their packed cars through the heat and traffic. Like game fish, they strike at different lures. Deep-sea fishermen go for the Gulf Stream, just a few miles offshore. Golfers aim for the area's 60 courses, fishers for the plentiful piers. Parents cart their kids to waterslides and amusement parks. But most of all, they come for the beach.

Myrtle Beach may have grown up at the end of the line, but the timber company couldn't have chosen a better place for a resort if it had tried. Myrtle Beach lies at the hub of the Grand Strand, an area stretching from Georgetown's Winyah Bay to the North Carolina border. That's 60 miles of white beach with a finn, sandy bottom-a superb natural playground.

The Grand Strand and its capital city have grown at a nearly unbroken pace for nine decades. True, there have been interruptions. Hurricane Hazel flattened the city in 1954 and wiped out most of the old beach cottages. The devastation only served to clear the way for 35 years of uninterrupted boom times, culminating in a high-rise waterfront once dubbed in these pages "Waikiki Beach with a pinch of y'all."

By the end of the summer season of 1989, Myrtle Beach had grown into a fast-food orgy for the eyes. On the road into town, miniature golf courses sprouted brightly painted giant mushrooms, dinosaurs, apes, pirates, and volcanoes. A drive-through Coney Island gone South, with a dash of Disney, it had once claimed the largest roller coaster in the world, and without orchestrated fanfare its environs became the third-largest tourist draw on the East Coast, complete with full-size amusement parks operating in the center of town; restaurants serving fresh seafood and the "famous foot-long" hot dog; and, along the beach, gleaming towers, expensive oceanfront houses, and mom-and-pop motels all jumbled together.

But a few short weeks later, the carnival streets of Myrtle Beach had lost more than just the summer bustle and the constant traffic of autos circling, searching for a place to park. Scattered beachcombers drawn to the off-season waterfront were silhouetted by a strange new addition to the Myrtle Beach waterfront-heavy equipment for rebuilding the famous beach lost to Hurricane Hugo, the September 1989 monster that had stunned the southeast seaboard.

Beyond the machinery stood the remains of one of the city's fishing piers. Just a few months before, the boardwalk had jutted toward the horizon, a sturdy bridge to nowhere. Fishermen in baseball caps clustered along the edges, separated from each other by ice chests filled with cold beer and bait. Now all that remained were stumps of pilings, broken witnesses to nature's final supremacy.

Unlike the devastation wreaked to the south-tiny McClellanville was almost obliterated, and mile after mile of foot-thick pine trees were snapped off like so many toothpicks in the Francis Marion National ForestMyrtle Beach was spared the worst fury of the storm. But much of the beach was washed away, and all ten fishing piers on the Grand Strand (including three in Myrtle Beach) were lost. Many of the buildings on the beach suffered water damage when the storm-driven sea washed over the sand dunes and through hotel lobbies.

Months later, a few cracked walls and broken windows were still visible. But already fresh paint was everywhere in evidence. Giant trucks had begun dumping 380,00 cubic yards of sand (100,000 truckloads) on the beach. The first of the new fishing piers was scheduled for reopening the next August. A local official said, "The goal is to be up and running by March 1"-the beginning of the Canadian/American Days Festival that kicks off the tourist season.

An ambitious goal, but the city seemed ready to reach it. After all, if Hazel's knockout hadn't kept Myrtle Beach off its feet for long, a jab from Hugo should hardly slow it down.

The writer spent his formative summers far from Myrtle Beach and its environs. Yet even a winter afternoon instantly evoked memories of childhood vacations at the shore. The town has that effect even if you grew up a thousand miles from the nearest ocean. I found myself eagerly trying to spot each new species of giant mushroom and dinosaur.

Myrtle Beach can be as much fun as a town-size amusement park. And for those who seek a different kind of escape, there are quiet hideaways nearby. Perhaps that's why the Grand Strand has become one of the East Coast's most popular resorts, the billion-dollar payoff to the bet placed 90 years ago at the Sea Side Inn.
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Title Annotation:South Carolina's resort community
Author:Stone, Michael A.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1990
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