There used to be more sand dollars.
“Even recently, say 5 or 10 years ago, every time you went to the island, you would find eight or 10 sand dollars. And now you hardly find any. I don’t know why,” said Jackie Boyce, one of the owners of the undeveloped Waties Island just north of Cherry Grove.
Boyce recalls coming to her family’s island by boat as a young girl and filling up peach baskets with the iconic flat sea urchins. That was before the causeway was built in the 1960s. Her cousin Jack Tilghman used to give the sand dollars to the Catholic Church for their Christmas celebrations.
“I don’t know if that’s because more people are coming over or if it’s because something’s changing with the ocean or the life in the ocean,” Boyce added. “So many things are cyclical and they haven’t been in recorded history until recently, scientifically.
“The way it used to be where you could gather them to your heart’s content, those days are over.”
But one thing hasn’t changed: the island is still relatively untouched by man, altered mainly by the sands of time as the current pushes sediment up the coast, expanding the northern tip of the island while waves crashing into the trees and sea grass erode the southern end.
“The end toward Cherry Grove is eroding and the end towards Little River Inlet is building up,” Boyce said. “So it’s more acres than it used to be, fortunately, because the other end is washing away rapidly.”
That undeveloped landscape now hangs in the balance as the future of the island is the subject of negotiations between the City of North Myrtle Beach, the Open Space Institute, and the island’s landowners.
The South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism would love to see the island as a state park, and the Open Space Institute had approached them about that possibility.
But while a state park could preserve the island and be a boon for the local economy, Boyce and her family are worried the infrastructure that comes with a state park could ruin the wild solitude of the untouched wilderness.
“I feel like the real gift is the way people discover it now,” Boyce said. “Where they go by kayak, or they wade across or they go by motorboat or something, either end of the island. And they have that joy of being there and being on an island, of the wildlife adventure. As soon as you start institutionalizing it and bringing in structure and infrastructure and lots of people, it changes it.”
Geographically, the 2.5-mile long island is unique. Boasting a large dunes field and small wooded area, the only undeveloped barrier island on South Carolina’s Grand Strand starts a string of barrier islands that run up the North Carolina coast. It’s home to deer, foxes, seabirds and other wildlife. Part of Cherry Grove also used to be its own island until it was developed and part of the marsh was filled in.
The recorded history of the island goes back to 1754, the date of a King’s grant to William Allston. (This refers to land grants from the Kind of England). At the time, the island was already called Waties, after one of three land surveyors by that name, although there’s no record that William Waties owned the island. That doesn’t necessarily mean he didn’t own it – there just aren’t available records to support it.
“There are three possibilities of which Waties, and all of them William Waties,” said Coastal Carolina University historian Ben Burroughs. “There’s a father, a son and a grandson. They were early surveyors in the area, and Indian traders. William Waties Jr., the records show that he owned 1,150 acres in the area of the Little River, Waties Island area in 1733.”
It’s possible that Waties had what was called a Lord-Proprietor’s grant for the land as well.
“About 1670, the King Charles had given the land to eight Lord-Proprietors,” Burroughs said. “They were given basically all of North and South Carolina all the way over to the Pacific Ocean.”
But at the time, people generally didn’t consider islands as a geographic feature to be owned, Burroughs said. Houses wouldn’t be built there, and the natural resources were relatively sparse. Folks didn’t go to the beach on weekends.
Barrier islands were seen as protection for the mainland. Some native tribes would use Waties Island as a fish camp, and researchers from CCU still study the remnants of native camps on the island.
“It was just nature. Part of the ocean,” Burroughs said. “So Waties Jr. may have had all this other land and that was right there at it, and it was just ‘Well, that’s Waties Island’ because it’s right there where his property is, but his deed might not have reflected it.”
By the 1920s, after changing hands multiple times, the island was owned by the Nixon family. Nixon sold the land to Horace Tilghman - Boyce's grandfather - in the 1920s.
“Our family, until probably until the 1990s, we owned everything,” Boyce said.
When Boyce’s mother, Anne Tilghman Boyce, passed away in 1988, the family donated the western third of the island to Coastal Carolina University’s foundation.
“And they can only do research and education,” Boyce added. “They’ve been good stewards and neighbors. The whole reason we did that gift to them was so that the island could be preserved.”
In the 1990s, one family member sold her middle portion of the island to Virginia-based Riverstone Properties. But Boyce isn’t worried about development, citing the company’s history of sitting on land without developing it. Plus, she added, it would be expensive to widen the causeway, install the infrastructure and get permits needed to develop.
Boyce’s younger sister, Olivia Boyce-Abel, was married on the island and wants her generation to find a way to preserve the land instead of passing the issue along to their kids. Boyce-Abel owns the eastern end of the island.
“My whole intention of my life has been that this land is preserved in its natural and pristine state,” Boyce-Abel said, describing a state park as the “antithesis” of what most of the family wants. “That’s my vision.”
The younger sister said she was concerned about the effect that lots of people and traffic would have on the area, especially the bird and turtle-nesting habitat.
“This is not a place for a city park or a state park,” she said. “This is not another Huntington Beach or another Myrtle Beach State Park.”
Boyce-Abel said she could be open to turning the island into a natural heritage site, but would need to do more research before coming to a conclusion.
“You wouldn’t want to have any vehicular traffic over here,” Boyce-Abel said. “If it were a very limited access, maybe. I can see a state park potentially on the mainland, but not here. I just think this is way too fragile. And they’re not making any more of this.”
Burroughs, who’s spent years studying the history of the North Strand, agrees with the sisters.
“Look at the rest of Horry County’s coastline,” he said. “It’s all been destroyed by the tourist industry, and Waties Island shouldn’t fall for that same thing. As much as Horry County’s coastline has given to this state, one little piece is the only piece left and it should be preserved.”