Discovering Beaufort’s many delights is best accomplished by a combination of walking and driving. The historic downtown area is relatively compact and easily negotiated on foot, but a number of sights worth seeing are farther afield.
OLD SHELDON CHURCH
Located just off U.S. Highway 17 on Sheldon Church Road, the ruins of this stately colonial church offer some of the most memorable scenes in the Beaufort area. Originally constructed in 1755 as St. William’s Parish Church, this massive Georgian brick edifice was congregation for South Carolina’s noted Bull family, whose members include famed planters and statesmen buried in historic graves on the property. Although the Bulls were loyal to the English crown, the church was burned by British troops during the Revolution. Restored in 1825, the church was burned again by Union troops during the Civil War. The towering brick columns still stand amid the church ruins, where Easter Sunday services and special wedding ceremonies are held each year.
Driving east on the Trask Parkway to Beaufort, visitors pass the expansive farm fields of Lobeco and enjoy a marvelous view crossing the meandering vistas of Whale Branch Creek. Just east of the bridge, turn right on SC state road S-7-42 for a short drive to the historic railroad juncture at Seabrook. The tiny community seems lost in a time warp with its few gabled houses and rail siding that enjoyed its heyday during the truck farming era of the 1920’s.
BEAUFORT MCAS AND PARRIS ISLAND
Continuing east on the Trask Parkway, drivers pass the aerial monuments of Beaufort’s Marine Corps Air Station, which offers public air shows each year featuring the Blue Angels precision flying team. Those interested in recent military history can take a right turn on state highway 280 for a visit to Parris Island Marine Recruiting Station. The island training center features a military museum open daily as well as a self-driving tour of the huge recruit facility.
BEAUFORT NATIONAL CEMETERY
Continuing on the Trask Parkway into downtown Beaufort, drivers pass 49-acre Beaufort National Cemetery, created after the Civil War to honor American soldiers. Famed members of the “Buffalo” soldiers, Confederate defenders, and Vietnam Medal of Honor winners are among the select veterans who lie at the cemetery, open daily.
WATERFRONT PARK AND BAY STREET
Continue driving down the Trask Parkway, which becomes Boundary Street, and after turning right on Cateret Street, begin the walking tour at Waterfront Park. The exceptional view of the Beaufort River showcase the town’s allure, and includes memorials to the Confederate defenders of the city. On the landward side of the massive oaks and hanging Spanish moss are some of the finest houses in the South, among these, the John Mark Verdier House with its distinctive Georgian double-columned portico. Open to the public as a house museum, this 1790 structure was visited by the Marquis de Lafayette in 1825, and was used by Union officers as headquarters during their occupation of Beaufort during the Civil War.
Just across Bay Street is the John Cross Tavern, built in the early 1700’s from a combination of oyster shells and lime known as “tabby”. This historic building houses a restaurant today, but was famous in the colonial period as a hangout for pirates who roamed the waterways around Beaufort. With plenty of loot to barter and money to spend, pirates such as the infamous Blackbeard were welcome in Beaufort during the early colonial period, and frequented such taverns, which dispensed food, drink and female companionship.
Continuing east on Bay Street, the pre-Revolutionary William Elliott House is one of the most attractive in the city. Known as “The Anchorage” because of its location along the Beaufort River, the colonnaded Georgian design is often referred to as a “double house”, referring to the two rooms on each side of a central hall on each floor.
Continuing farther down Bay Street, visitors can enjoy gift shops, restaurants, and a row of stately riverfront homes standing since the 18th century. Take a right on Church Street to see the fabulous Milton Maxey House, built in 1813. Known as “The Secession House” for anti-union meetings held here prior to the Civil War, the structure is a picture of Southern elegance with its grand exterior staircase leading to riverfront piazzas.
CHURCHES AND CASTLES
A block east on Church Street is the towering ivory spire of St. Helena’s Episcopal Church, among the oldest surviving houses of worship in the South, dating to 1724. The massive colonial church provided haven as a hospital for wounded soldiers during the Civil War, and grateful Union troops later donated the carved the wooden altar.
A few blocks northwest on Charles Street, is another famous steeple at the Baptist Church of Beaufort, built in 1844 as one of the finest examples of Greek Revival Architecture in South Carolina. Also used as a field hospital during the Civil War, the church steeple beams still display the graffiti of wounded Union soldiers.
Meander back north and east to Craven Street for one of Beaufort’s hidden treasures, the castellated Arsenal Museum, whose original tabby foundations date to the 1790’s. The museum is open to the public five days a week and features brass cannons captured from the British during the Revolution and used by Confederate defenders in the Civil War. The Arsenal was home to the Beaufort Volunteer Artillery, which substantially restored the site in 1852, and used it as a headquarters through World War II.
Continue north to Federal Street, where the imposing Joseph Johnson House, known as “The Castle House” because of a construction design in 1858 that resembled a medieval fortress. The house is famed as Beaufort’s most haunted, and was ironically used as a morgue during the Civil War. The featured ghost is a legendary dwarf named Gauche who was said to have been a jester for 16th century explorer Jean Ribaut, and has allegedly reappeared on the house grounds when children were playing.
Continue north on Federal Street to one of Beaufort’s most enchanting, and sometimes cinematic locations overlooking the bend of the Beaufort River. First is “Tidewater”, the 1830 mansion of Beaufort planter William Fripp. Left on Pinckney Street, the James Robert Verdier House looms with its grand gates and wrap-around porches set above an arcaded cellar. The 1814 structure is known as “Marshlands” for its position overlooking the tidal estuary.
Eastward on tiny Short Street, the position of the grandiose Paul Hamilton house nestled among massive, moss-draped trees earned it fame as “The Oaks” when it was built in 1856. Just down Short Street is the renowned Edgar Fripp House, built in 1853, whose expansive Southern mansion façade became internationally-recognized as site of filming of the movie classic “The Big Chill”. Turn back south on Laurens Street for a view of the Berners Barnwell Sams House, built in 1852 as one of several exquisite summer homes for planters escaping the inland heat.
Continue south on Laurens and turn east on New Street for a visit to the First African Baptist Church, built by newly-emancipated slaves in 1865. The wooden structure was the first of its kind built by the new group of “freedmen”, and was skillfully crafted by artisans and carpenters who enjoyed for the first time the concept of offering their labor for no pay. Farther east on New Street is Beaufort’s oldest dwelling, the Thomas Hepworth House, built in 1717 with a simple, gable style.
The walking tour comes full-circle at the intersection of Bay Street, where the Lewis Reeves Sams House house stood since 1852. The raised portico with its rows of Doric and Ionic columns is among Beaufort’s most striking, and was remarkably preserved by a 1907 that swept buildings on either side, saved by water pumped by hand from a yard well.
ST. HELENA AND HUNTING ISLANDS
Back behind the wheel, an easy side trip is across the scenic Beaufort River to the sea and barrier islands beyond.
Cross Lady’s Island to St. Helena Island, and the historic community of Frogmore. Quaint shops and art galleries dominate the small cross roads, which won fame for the delicious seafood concoction known as Frogmore Stew. Farther down oak-bordered route 45 is the Penn Center National Historic Site. Begun as a school for slave children by northern missionaries during the Civil War, the group of historic buildings became home to the Penn Normal School in 1900, offering poor island blacks an opportunity to learn agricultural sciences, carpentry, and other useful skills. Today, the complex includes a museum highlighting the history and achievements of a community descended from slaves, and the public can view historic and active displays of culture and environmental awareness of the pristine area.
Sixteen miles from downtown Beaufort is Hunting Island State Park, home to one of the most remarkable lighthouses ever built. Built in 1875 overlooking the wild sand dunes of the Atlantic Ocean, the 140 foot lighthouse was ingeniously-designed to be disassembled if the sea were to encroach on its foundation. When erosion threatened the structure in 1889, it was carefully taken apart, moved more than a mile inland, and put back together piece by piece. Today, visitors can climb the 167 steps to the top for an unparalleled view of the Atlantic Coast, as well as view historic keepers’ quarters, and one of the huge early lenses used to magnify light for great distances.