Discovering hidden history and modern taste in this low-key Lowcountry town
Article and photos by Nick Robertson
Port Royal is a sleepy nook along South Carolina's labyrinthine coast, where the loudest sounds are often squabbling flocks of herons, egrets, and other birds roosting amid the Cypress Wetlands preserve or the rumbling motor of a pleasure boat gliding past the waterfront observation tower at The Sands.
Iconic views of Lowcountry scenery surround this wooden watchtower, but the quietude of Battery Creek is frequently interrupted by pops of gunshots resonating from the Marine-recruit firing range on nearby Parris Island. This is far from the first time ordnance shattered the peace that naturally drapes this winding marshland — 160 years ago, this region was among the first Confederate bastions to fall following the Battle of Port Royal.
That amphibious Union victory ushered in the short-lived Port Royal Experiment, a program empowering some 10,000 newly liberated African Americans to successfully work abandoned plantation land, becoming an exemplary model of what Reconstruction might have achieved. After the Civil War, South Carolina's trailblazing Black U.S. Congressman Robert Smalls — renowned for escaping slavery by valiantly commandeering a Confederate gunboat in Charleston harbor and turning it over to the Union Navy — worked at Port Royal's still-standing Customs House.
Such momentous history envelops this unassuming salt-crusted town of wooden bungalows and shell-littered shores — but Port Royal is now experiencing a thoroughly modern revival as genuinely hip eateries and shops keep popping up, while locals convert their quaint cottages into pastel-painted Airbnb accommodations. Plans are underway to thoroughly revamp Port Royal's waterfront with new commercial and residential developments.
The long-term feasibility of these upgrades remains to be seen; Port Royal is no stranger to booms and busts. However, many residents are optimistic that the community's future may finally be brightening at a sustainable pace.
"It was getting old. It needs to grow. Port Royal tried to grow so many times," said Mike Jones, vice president of the Historic Port Royal Foundation. Jones welcomes the visitor-friendly transformation currently enlivening the town he's called home since 1959, with confidence that Port Royal can retain its quirky character and avoid becoming overly touristy. "They can't turn it into a little Hilton Head. It's not big enough."
A town shaped by historic waterways
Port Royal's newish welcome sign and glossy tourist brochures proclaim an establishment date of 1562, but this is somewhat misleading — that was the year when French explorer Jean Ribaut first sailed into what he would call Port Royal Sound, but this namesake municipality was only incorporated in 1874, after wealthy northerner Daniel Appleton bought two plantations comprising the peninsula tip where Port Royal now stands, according to Jones.
"He came from New York. He was a carpetbagger," Jones said of Appleton. "He came down here with money, and he bought this place for almost nothing."
Of course, Native Americans traversed this region long before Ribaut and Appleton set eyes on it; Port Royal's seafood-rich rivers and creeks have been continually valued for thousands of years, with the area's easily navigable waterways shaping the town's entire history.
It was the sprawling natural harbor of Port Royal Sound that attracted Union brass to plan an early Civil War raid on this stretch of Deep South shoreline. The northerners' gambit was made possible by the miles-wide gap of ocean between two Confederate fortifications hurriedly constructed to protect the sound's entrance — Hilton Head Island's Fort Walker to the south, and Fort Beauregard on remote Phillip's Island to the north.
On November 7, 1861, U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont led his Union fleet into an elliptical course plotted directly amid the mouth of Port Royal Sound, keeping his gunboats just out of range from the cannons of both island forts. The rotating battleships repeatedly shelled the Confederate strongholds, and Fort Walker fell that day after sustaining severe damage. Hearing resulting cheers of victory from the northern sailors, the defenders of Fort Beauregard beat a surreptitious retreat, fearing they'd soon be cut off from the mainland.
Before long, the Union took Beaufort — just north of modern-day Port Royal — and the surrounding Sea Islands, holding this territory through the Civil War's bloody end. Thus the region's enslaved African Americans were freed long before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
The area's plantation owners had fled by this point, and their land became the laboratory for a bold initiative that could've sped up delivery on America's still-stunted promise of liberty for all. The Port Royal Experiment was a northern-run program encouraging formerly enslaved locals to independently work the abandoned fields, assigning themselves tasks for growing and harvesting cotton while hunting, fishing, and cultivating other crops.
Through their resourcefulness, the area's freed African Americans enjoyed considerable success in the Port Royal Experiment, selling surplus crops to buy small plots of land — but this achievement was dashed with the bullet that killed Lincoln. Within his first year in the White House, Andrew Johnson ended the Port Royal Experiment and returned the plantation land to its previous owners, as a harbinger of what was to come in the crippling of Reconstruction efforts across the South.
Nonetheless, Smalls — a Beaufort native, and founder of the Republican Party of South Carolina — served several nonconsecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives during 1875-1887, before his appointment as Beaufort's Collector of Customs. Smalls regularly worked in the then-new town of Port Royal in this role that he held for nearly two decades, despite racist opposition from local politicians.
While this region has certainly come a long way towards embracing diversity since the Reconstruction era, the community still suffers from issues of racism to this day. In March of 2021, the Island Packet reported that the FBI was investigating Port Royal's public seafood-dock management in response to charges of racial bias in price-fixing and nepotism.
Nonetheless, Port Royal has long roots as a multicultural community, thanks to its near-oceanfront location that naturally welcomes the world. The late 1800s brought an influx of immigrants here seeking work in the town's burgeoning fishing industry; a large-scale oyster cannery was established here in 1903. Port Royal's primary thoroughfares — including London Avenue, Madrid Avenue, and Paris Avenue — are named for some of the major metropolises that many residents left behind to resettle in this humble Lowcountry hamlet.
The diverse workforce powered Port Royal's economy to prosperity through the 20th century's first half, with a state-of-the-art crab cannery setting up shop here in 1940. Battery Creek was continually dredged to accommodate ever-larger cargo ships, resulting in the silt buildup that created The Sands, Port Royal's beachy strand where ancient shark teeth are oft unearthed, according to Jones.
When Jones's family moved to Port Royal during his early childhood, he remembers the town as a rough-and-tumble fishing village freely trod by sailors from across the Caribbean and far beyond, who would explore town without bothering to check in at customs, accepting dinner invitations from locals eager to hear tales of life on the high seas.
"The guys would get out of the boat and mingle all over the town," Jones recalls with nostalgia, while noting that Port Royal's industrial heyday slowly dwindled in recent decades, bottoming out about ten years ago when the town's direct train line to Augusta was discontinued. "Big boats from all over the world came here. … Things have changed since then."
A modern-day "Mayberry on the water"
Jones shares his longtime-local knowledge as a docent at the Historic Port Royal Foundation's small museum, located for the past two years within a meticulously restored former feed store just steps away from the Cypress Wetlands boardwalk, a popular site for spotting alligators. On the museum's other side, neighboring antique homes now host Carolina Cuppity Cakes and the pastoral Garden of Elin womenswear showroom. Just a few steps beyond, the Corner Perk Brunch Cafe serves avocado toast and chai lattes within Port Royal's former railroad-depot building.
History and modernity mingle all along Paris Avenue, Port Royal's main drag. An old wooden schoolhouse now contains the Cracked Egg breakfast joint. The sturdy red-brick Customs House dating back to 1838 — the former workplace of Smalls — is now home to the Effervescence Yoga Spa, established in 2017 to provide premium massages, meditation sessions, and "embodiment experiences".
The Nuances boutique sells nautical-themed throw pillows and tea towels within the walls of what once was Scheper's Store, built in 1885 to become Port Royal's main provisioner of general goods for decades. Across the street, a Folk-style commercial cottage built in 1880 has housed the ZenDen "metaphysical supply store" for the past three years, proffering crystals, sage, and incense along with reiki healing services.
Another fairly new business has raised the bar for Port Royal's culinary options. Since 2017, Madison's offers classic Lowcountry dishes made from locally sourced ingredients with nouveau flair. The parking lot here fills up on weekday afternoons with patrons seeking lunches like the crab-cake sandwich with bacon and creamy lemon-and-grain-mustard aioli on a brioche roll or gluten-free bread, or the seared rare tuna salad with tomato vinaigrette, crumbled blue cheese, and candied pecans. Even the obligatory shrimp' n' grits is presented artfully here with Tasso ham and mushrooms.
Next door to Madison's, patrons can devour more straightforward Southern delights at the Smokehouse BBQ, a favorite among Port Royal cops and retirees. Some lunch specials here cost less than eight bucks, or splurge on the Carolina Piggy Burger — a half-pound beef patty topped with house-made pulled pork and coleslaw, with plenty of Carolina Gold sauce slathered on the buttery toasted bun — served with two sides for under $12. While savoring this handheld feast, admire the eatery's colorful stained-glass windows depicting local landmarks.
Just beside Port Royal's still-active docks, where shrimping scenes were filmed for Forrest Gump, the Fishcamp on 11th Street is a tin-roofed dining destination serving Daufuskie Island blue crab cakes, Lowcountry boil, and blackened Carolina catfish with roasted red-pepper coulis and charred lemon. On weekend evenings, musicians perform here on the wooden deck with shrimp boats for a backdrop, providing a quintessential coastal setting to absorb while sipping beers at the open-air bar.
But back on Paris Avenue, Maynard's Ice Cream & Cafe may best encapsulate the new-wave spirit washing over present-day Port Royal. Launched last year by husband-and-wife entrepreneurs Jennifer and Heath Cobb, this tasteful sweetshop would fit seamlessly into any urban-hotspot neighborhood, with a contemporary logo and design elements reminiscent of a Wes Anderson movie set.
While Jennifer spent ample time visiting family in Hilton Head, she never felt at home in this region until discovering Port Royal; soon afterwards she and Heath agreed that this would be an ideal community to settle into.
"We've kind of found our own little Mayberry on the water," Heath said with a laugh from behind the counter while holding Maynard — the couple's pooch, named after Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan. A former Marine, Heath offers a discount to the recruits and other service members who visit from Parris Island. "We have a lot of the drill instructors coming in here."
Specialties at Maynard's include gourmet doughnuts made fresh onsite daily, with varieties including banana creme pie, maple-bacon, and the Fat Elvis with banana topping and Reese's Peanut Butter Cup chunks. Macarons and Palmetto Pops are some other contemporary treats served here for an enthusiastic crowd of local regulars and visitors who stop in daily while vacationing nearby. During summertime street parties on Paris Avenue, Maynard's becomes a main-street meeting point as live music and conversation fills the air.
"Everyone comes in here being very social," Jennifer said, expressing gratitude for becoming a part of Port Royal's revival. "It's a cool town, it's got a good vibe here. … There's something here that's lost in the world."