Fort Howell Civil War historic site, a Hilton Head free family attraction

Hilton Head Island was captured by Union forces on November 7, 1861 after the Battle of Port Royal. The enormous amphibious invasion force, the largest until World War II, consisted of 77 ships (15 warships), 13,000 troops, 1,500 horses and tons of materials needed to establish the headquarters for the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

Three years later Fort Howell was built by black Union Army troops to protect Mitchelville, the first town in the South developed specifically for the thousands of newly freed slaves.

Fort Howell historic site is located near the intersection of Beach City Road and Dillon, right across from Hilton Head Airport. Admission is free, the site is open daily from dawn to dusk and it takes about 15-20 minutes to cover all the grounds.

Built by U.S. Troops to protect Mitcheville the first freedmen town in the South

Fort Howell full layout



Fort Howell historic highlights:

• The earthen fort was named after Gen. Joshua Howell, who was killed in the battle of Richmond.
• The newly arrived 500 members of the 32nd U.S. Colored Regiment from Pennsylvania, under the command of Col. Baird and the 144th New York Infantry, were assigned the task of building the fort.
• Fort Howell was built in the middle of a large cotton field near the Port Royal Sound, on 3 acres of land once part of the Fish Hall Plantation of William Pope.
• It was designed for 27 guns, 11 field pieces and 16 siege guns.

After building the fort, the 32nd U.S. Colored Regiment participated in the Battle of Honey Hill, on November 30, 1864, sustain 51 casualties.

Bridge over moat at Fort Howell built in 1864

Traverse and moat

The first black troops in the Union Army enlisted on Hilton Head Island in 1862. Initially, men were reluctant to join the army, not wanting to leave their families and risk being captured by the Confederates which meant a return to slavery and death. Also, many Union troops were openly hostile to escaped slaves. To encourage recruits Gen. Hunter issued a pass to those joining the army:

“Now, be it known to all that, agreeable to the laws, I declare the said person free and forever absolved from all claims to its services. Both he and his wife and his children have full right to go North, South, East, West as they may decide.” D. Hunter Major General Commanding. April 19, 1862.

At the top of the North Bastion

North Bastion location

The unit was disbanded months later. Congress did not allow black men to serve until 1863, when the unit was officially organized as the South Carolina First Regiment. The men in the unit were former slaves from South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

By the end of the Civil War, 179,000 blacks in the Union Army and 20,000 in the Navy have fought for freedom and the end of slavery.

Whats left of Fort Howell at Port Royal sound

What remains from Fort Howell’s earthen fortifications

Moss covered trees at Fort Howell Hilton Head

Peaceful trail withing Fort Howell historic site

More historic sites in the area (data and map from Historical Markers Database website)
• Mitchelville site
• St. James Baptist Church
Battle of Port Royal
• Fish Hall Plantation
• Thomas Fenwick Drayton
• Two Gallant Gentlemen from South Carolina

Here is the map, all markers are within 1 mile from Fort Howell and have free admission.

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Beautiful bird encounters while traveling in South Carolina

My favorite thing to do while traveling in South Carolina is to take pictures of wildlife, especially birds.

Spotting a bald eagle last December while kayaking in the marsh at Cherry Grove Beach is by far the most cherished bird watching moment.

Amazing bald eagle sighting while kayaking in the marsh

The majestic bald eagle returns to South Carolina coast.

Witnessing a great white egret couple, delicately preparing their nest for the upcoming chicks, is a close second favorite encounter.

White Egret males and female building a nest

And here is the rest…get out there and enjoy nature at its best!

A Myrtle Beach kayaking trip to remember! Bald eagle, dolphins, egret, cormorant encounters

My first time seeing a bald eagle in the wild! We love kayaking in the marshes near North Myrtle Beach (Cherry Grove inlet to be exact) because is so peaceful and you get to watch a variety of wildlife in their natural habitat. This was indeed icing on the cake…

We started out at sunrise and let in at the boat ramp inside Cherry Grove Park adjacent the Heritage Shores Nature Preserve (highly recommending visiting , free admission).

Boat ramp and fishing dock at sunrise

Best way to start the day: going kayaking in the marsh at Cherry Grove Beach!

After a hearty 30 minutes paddle going against the current as we were trying to reach

Easy kayaking away from the main channel

Paddling through the side inlet to avoid going against the current

the ocean, we turned around looking for a better way.

We found it right across the dock where we let in. There is a mini inlet going parallel to main channel (Go only at high tide to avoid getting stuck in the sea grass or the oyster beds).

What a world of difference!

While my husband guided the kayak at a leisurely pace, I was able to take photos, enjoy the beautiful marsh views, and look out for wildlife.

We hit the jackpot! A remarkable American bald eagle perched on a pole,

Bald eagle perched on a pole in the middle of the marsh

Great reason to go out paddling...a chance to see the majestic American bald eagle!

scanning the marsh in search for a morning prey, oblivious to our presence…

For a long time it stood so still I wondered whether is one of those fake birds you see around the beach.

But it did eventually move when we got really close.

As I was shooting a video of its huge, beautiful wings in full strike, my batteries ran out…go figure! At least I got some nice still shots.

Here is another big bird beauty, a great white egret sitting in a tree in the middle of the preserve.

Wading bird up in the tree

Great white egret trying to spot its next meal

A double crested cormorant gliding smoothly above the water. Did you know that cormorants dive for food and after catching a fish, resurface, flip it into the air and swallow it head first?

Amazing bird viewing in North Myrtle Beach

Rewarding wildlife viewing while paddling in the marsh

Our initial attempt to pass “the Gauntlet of Death” (the nickname my husband gave the spot where the inlet meets the ocean and strong waves push against you) failed. But our second try through the side inlet succeeded with ease. We reached the barrier island and decided to take a break.

Good time to take a break from paddling

Where the inlet meets the ocean at the "Gauntlet of Death"...

Another treat in store: bottlenose dolphins feeding offshore. During our extended winter vacation at Cherry Grove Beach we were lucky to see dolphins swimming by the pier almost every day. Here is a memorable video with a pair of dolphins doing a spectacular synchronized jump.

Kayaking wildlife viewing by the Atlantic Ocean in South Carolina

Enjoying a relaxing break from paddling on the barrier island

What else can you ask for? The ocean, sun, amazing wildlife encounters and a healthy dose of exercise at the beach, all free. Happy New Year everyone!

On the barrier island looking out to cherry grove beach resort

Gorgeous beach vista from the barrier island

Start a new family tradition this year: kayaking along the South Carolina coast!

Walking the Nature Preserve, Cherry Grove Beach fun free things to do

Ever wonder what is like to be in the middle of a saltwater marsh? Visiting the Heritage Shores Nature Preserve is the perfect way to find out. The preserve is feet away from Cherry Grove Beach and provides a mile long roundtrip boardwalk through a beautiful and diverse ecosystem. Admission is free and the park is open all day year around.

How to get there and where to park: The Nature Preserve is located next to the Cherry Grove Park and Boat Ramp at the end of 53rd Avenue North. The park is a very popular fishing destination in North Myrtle Beach and most of its parking spots are designated to cars with boat trailers. The preserve has its own mini parking lot and from here talk the short walk to the preserve entrance (turn right, away from the boat ramp area).

Welcome to the Nature Preserve

Start of the 1 mile walking trail inside the preserve

There are many interpretive signs about the marsh, fauna and flora you can observe along the trail. There is a boating dock and two shaded picning shelters (no restrooms). Bicycles are not allowed inside the preserve.

Oyster reefs are nature’s purest water filters, capable of cleansing 10 to 15 gallons of water a day.

A bed of oysters in the Cherry Grove inlet

The purest water filter...

Bird watchers enthusiasts are in for a treat. You can often spot blue herons, brown pelicans, white ibis and great egrets. Occasionally you may see double crested cormorans, osprey, hawks and barred owls.

Great blue heron wading at Heritage Shores Nature Preserve

The king of the tidal marshes

A majestic looking brown pelican hunting for its next meal. When fishing pelicans dive bill first from up to 60 feet high. An air sack under the bill cushions the blow that will otherwise kill most birds. A pelican can live almost 30 years.

Beautiful brown pelican at Nature Preserve

Master fisherman in action

Scenic picnic area overlooking the inlet and the ocean.

Relaxing inside the Cherry Grove preserve

Picnic area overlooking the marsh and the Atlantic Ocean

Dogs on leash are welcome inside the preserve.

Easy walking trail inside the preserve

Walking the dog inside the preserve

The Cherry Grove Hog Inlet provides good fishing opportunities for silverside, winter flounder, mummichog, pinfish, Atlantic croaker and striped mullet.

Fishermen Nature Preserve tidal marshes

A great way to spend the day in the tidal marsh

There are many different trees inside the maritime forest preserve. Here is an example of the sour cherry tree, where the Cherry Grove Beach name comes from. Other trees are the loblolly, red cedar (which is actually a juniper!), wax myrtle, groundsel and the strange looking hackberry.

Maritime forest cherry trees

There are indeed cherry trees at the beach...

My favorite was the Yaupon Holly, a very important tree for the Native American tribes that inhabited the area thousands of years ago. They used the caffeine-rich leaves for medicinal (“black drink” tea) and ceremonial purposes. Nowadays the berries are an important food source for many birds and small mammals.

Beautiful holly berries

Yaupon Holly tree at Cherry Grove Beach

Here is prickly pea cactus, nature’s own holidays ornament! Other plants include the Indian blanket, sea daisy, goldenrod (another popular medicinal plant used by Native Americans to treat fever, coughs, colds and measles), pickleweed, cord grass (the “civil engineer” of the tidal marshes) and reindeer moss (high in carbohydrates and vitamins A and B)

Salt marshes plants

Giant pea cactus inside the preserve

Animals big and small used to thrive in the maritime forest and the saltwater marsh, an excellent nursery home for many marine species. Who may live here? In the forest are red foxes, raccoons, white tail deer, broadhead skink; in the marsh crabs, snails, mussels, oysters, mud hoppers etc. While kayaking my husband was “escorted” by a noisy pod of bottlenosed dolphins who often come to the inlet to hunt for fish.

Walking through the mini maritime forest

A piece of paradise at Cherry Grove Beach

More fun things to do in North Myrtle Beach

  • Kayaking the Cherry Grove inlet all the way to the Atlantic Ocean (look out for friendly dolphins). Make sure to check the tide schedule and plan accordingly.
  • Ride the Sky Wheel, the newest family attraction downtown Myrtle Beach ($12 adults, $10 children 3-11)

Here is a more detailed list of affordable family friendly activities you can do from Wilmington NC to Georgetown SC.

Have fun in South Carolina!

Kayaking at Cherry Grove Beach: amazing scenery, great bird watching and fishing bonanza

Ahhh! Kayaking at the beach…This past weekend we got our feet wet at saltwater paddling with our 7 years old. With its calm and relatively low water the Cherry Grove inlet was a great choice for out first family kayak ride. We enjoyed beautiful scenery and up close encounters with egrets, pelicans and seagulls.

Preparing our inflatable kayak to ride the Cherry Grove Inlet

A rite of passage...her first kayaking experience

Things to know before you go
• The Cherry Grove Boat Ramp on 53rd Avenue North provides access to the marsh and ocean. There is a double boat ramp, boat trailer parking, a fishing pier, dock and restrooms. Parking spots go out quickly and we had to use the little beach opposite the boat ramp to let our kayak in.
• Check the saltwater inlet tidal guide and use common sense before entering the inlet to avoid any surprises.
• Our round trip, from the boat ramp to the ocean and back, lasted about an hour at a very leisurely pace.
• The Cherry Grove tidal marshes are very popular for fishing, crabbing and shrimping. Be prepared to navigate your way around fishing lines, especially when you let in, go under the bridge and when you reach the Atlantic Ocean.

Beautiful fall ride in the salt marsh near the beach

Out and about in the tidal marsh at Cherry Grove Beach

The boardwalk was one of my favorite landmarks along the way.

Board walk Cherry Grove inlet

Scenic boardwalk and bird watching along our kayaking trip

The egrets were quite active that morning, we saw several wading or flying about looking for a meal.

Beautiful egret in the tidal marsh

The queen of the marsh

Some seagulls fishing! (I thought they only ate chips and crackers…)

Fun kayaking at North Myrtle Beach

Seagulls fishing in the marsh

Busy day for fishermen at Cherry Grove.

Boat and surf fishing Cherry Grove inlet

Fishing enthusiasts flock to Cherry Grove Beach in the fall

A picture perfect family outing…

Fun riding the kayak in the Cherry Grove inlet

Peace of mind

Here is a list with fun and affordable family friendly things to do in and around Myrtle Beach.

Make sure to ride the Sky Wheel downtown Myrtle Beach (open daily til midnight, tickets are $12 adults and $10 children over 3).

Historic Brookgreen Gardens, a tour of the Lowcountry Center

The story of the land…

The Lowcountry Center at Brookgreen Gardens features drawings, maps, artifacts, pictures and stories from 1580s to present. Brookgreen Gardens is open daily and admission is $12 adults, $10 seniors, $6 children 4-12 and free for those 3 and under.

“Draw to life one of each kind of thing that is strange to us in England. . . . all strange birds, beasts, fishes, plants, herbs, trees, and fruits. . . . also the figures and shapes of men and women in their apparel, as also their manner of weapons in every place as you shall find them differing.” – Royal British instructions to John White on a 1582 exploratory voyage

16th century Native Americans lifestyle on the Carolina Coast

1590 drawings of Native Americans living in North Carolina by John White


John White’s drawings, later made famous by Theodore de Bry engraving adaptations, became the most important source of information to Europeans rulers, explorers, settlers and regular folks about the Native Americans lifestyle, social makeup and beliefs.

They showed (through the eye of the “white man”) the flora and fauna that inhabited the area, the village structure, house construction techniques, hunting, harvesting and cooking tools.

They showed the social hierarchy, the roles played by men and women, young and old; how they dressed, how they celebrated and how they dealt with death and the after life.

Learn more about John White’s drawings here.

Rice cultivation was a very complex, time consuming and labor intensive process. Fields needed to be flooded and the water lever to remain stationary. Sometimes the rice needed to be kept completely dry.

Rice flood gates system deployed at Brookgreen Plantation

The rice field trunk was invented by Egyptians more than 6,000 years ago

So ditches were dug, banks were built around the rice fields and small flood gates called “trunks” were installed. People working and maintain the gates were called “trunk menders.”

Did you know? The Egyptians invented the rice field trunk more than 6,000 years ago!

It consisted of two floodgates built to regulate the flow of water. One gate was on the river side and ran through an earthen dike, the other was on the rice field side. The openings were hollowed out from tree trunks, usually cypress (hence the name).

This model was built by Capt. Frank M. Bechkam, who also constructed the two benches in the room with timber left over from the rebuilding of a rice gate on Cane Island in North Santee.

The Lowcountry Center showcases several farming tools used in the past centuries in the rice and turpentine productions. Examples include foot adze, draw knife, broad axe, hoe, rice threshing basket, grinding stone, sap collecting bowl etc.

Rice plantation and sap collecting equipment

18th and 19th centuries farming tools used at Brookgreen Plantation

There is gold in them thar’ trees!

Demand for naval stores products in the United States began in early 1700s to supply the growing shipping industry of the colonies. Turpentine, rosin, tar and pitch were used in various applications in the ship building process.

The turpentine making process in late 19th century

1890s photograph of turpentine workers and distilleries


Tar and pitch were used for water proofing and sealing rope ends; turpentine as a preservative and solvent, and rosin for grease, water proofing and foundry work.

All naval stores were made derivatives extracted from pine trees, especially the Longleaf and Slash varieties abundant along the Carolina coast.

By the early 1800s, the “Tar Heelers” of North Carolina had expanded into the forests of Horry County. By 1850, 12 stills existed on the banks of Waccamaw River. Turpentine workers striped the bark from pine trees and collected the sticky rosin in barrels which were hauled by mule cart to turpentine distilleries for processing.

After Civil War and Reconstruction most of the Lowcountry rice plantations shattered. Ironically this ensured the preservation of extensive natural areas for future generations.

Early 20th duck hunting expedition in the Lowcountry

Waterfowl hunting bonanza on the former rice plantations in the 1920s


At the end of 19th century, real estate promoters described the local climate as beneficial for tuberculosis sufferers.

They advertised the plantations as a dreamland for recreational hunting and fishing. Rich people from the North flocked in the bought most of the plantations.

Anna and Archer Huntington vowed to provide safe havens for waterfowl birds at their properties in Virginia and South Carolina. Other owners encouraged visiting ducks and geese, but ended up harvested them for sport.

Now through August 12, you can enjoy an evening cruise down the creeks of the former rice plantation. Tickets are $7 in addition to general garden admission.

Fun things to do with kids inside Brookgreen Gardens

Play with clay, draw and pet live native animals at The Children Discovery Room

• See some wading magnificent birds at the Cypress Swamp Aviary

• Admire wild animals and rare farm breeds at the Lowcountry Zoo

• Check out the rice fields and the slave overseer’s house and kitchen ruins on the Lowcountry Trail. Beware, there several ghosts haunting the plantation and the nearby beaches.

Free kids activities near Myrtle Beach: visit Horry County Museum downtown Conway

On your way to a fun filled Myrtle Beach vacation stop in downtown Conway to visit the Horry County History Museum. Admission is free and the museum is open Tuesday to Saturday from 9AM to 5PM.

Take a photo of the historic Wade Hampton Oak that guards the museum entrance. In 1876, former Confederate Gen. Wade Hampton gave a speech in front of 2,000 people during his campaign for SC governor. His election ended the reconstruction period in South Carolina.

SC Governor Wade Hamptons oak tree

The famous oak tree saved by the brave Mary Beaty

Ten years later, as railroad tracks were being laid in Conway, Mary Elizabeth Beaty, owner of the property, ran outside with a shotgun to protect the oak.

Greatest women of Horry County

Mary Elizabeth Beaty helped preserve the Wade Hampton oak tree

She threatened to shoot anyone that attempted to cut down the tree!
Every since the city of Conway was careful in preserving its oaks and roads were built around the trees.

Born in Bucksport, Maine in 1824, Mary Elizabeth Brookman Beaty, was one of nine children of Henry Brookman, a rigger.

In 1840, Mary came to Bucksport, SC to become governess to the children of Henry Buck, shipbuilder and timber magnate.

In 1851, she married Thomas Wilson Beaty of Horry County. Tragically, all of her 5 children died in their youth.

Mary Elizabeth Beaty became one of the most respected and influential women in the county.

See the natural wildlife exhibit, in particular the life size taxidermy examples of some young American black bears. There is also a huge alligator, birds of prey, opossum, beavers and a whale bone.

American black bear Conway natural science exhibit

Young black bear cubs killed by cars

Marvel at the impressive collection of Native American artifacts from the Archaic, Woodland and Mississippian periods. There are various arrow points, atl-atl spear, fire drills, axes, hoes and digging sticks and beautiful Woodland pottery.

Native American artifacts at the Horry County Museum

Prehistoric Native American pottery, bowls, pipes and points

Check out the fine Civil War artifacts recovered in 1991 from the Confederate gunboat PeeDee. The 150 foot Macon class gun boat was built at the Mars Bluff Naval Yard on PeeDee river. It launched in January 1865 but it was short lived. In March 1865, fearing capture by Gen. William Sherman’s Union troops, the Confederate commanders ordered its Brookes cannon thrown overboard and then set the boat on fire.

Civil War weapon artifacts at the Horry County Museum

Replica of a Brookes rifle cannon installed on CSS PeeDee gunboat

Some of the recovered items include a canon shell, lead bullets, iron canister, beam spikes, sail grommets, silver spoon, butcher knife, stove fragments, brass compass and much more.

Artifacts recovered from CSS PeeDee

Confederate weapons and military ship tools recovered from gunboat CSS PeeDee

Admire an exquisite quilt, embroidery and dolls collection created by local artists. On display there are two original Singer sewing machine from the 1920s.

Singer sowing machine with original case

1927 Singer machine featuring the Egyptian Lotus pattern decal

Learn about the economic development history of the region: naval shipbuilding, turpentine, logging and railroad industries.

Collecting and processing tree sap

Giant rosin

After vising the museum take a relaxing stroll along the beautiful Waccamaw Riverwalk.