Sandlapper Society

Journey to the Paradise Beyond

by Laura Von Harten  •  photos by Kimberly Krauk

Christopher Holmes, 89, stands at a dock on Daufuskie Island, gazing across the glistening waters of the intracoastal waterway. It’s Daufuskie Day, an annual homecoming celebration for native islanders, and Chris is waiting for the boat that carries Etheline, his beloved bride of 65 years. He looks anxious.

Chris and Etheline do not live on Daufuskie anymore. With her health in decline, she is wheelchair-bound, and because there is no ADA-compliant ferry service to Daufuskie, they’ve had to stay in Savannah.

Whenever Chris can find someone to care for Etheline, he’s on Daufuskie, tending to his land and restoring the historic cottage that has been in the Holmes family since 1893. He has a lot to show Etheline when she gets here.

When the boat finally arrives, a mate leaps off and positions the boarding steps on the dock. The young and agile quickly clamber down. After them come the slower-moving folks— the ones with bad knees, swollen ankles, canes, walkers and wheelchairs. And here is Etheline.

Chris has been looking forward to bringing her home and showing her the progress he’s made on the house. But getting her there is going to be a struggle. With family and friends supporting her, Etheline edges carefully down the stairs, step by painful step. The helpers guide her gently into a wheelchair. Then comes the next ordeal: the ramp.
 
The timing couldn’t be worse. The tide is low, so the pier head is a good six feet higher than the floating dock. The ramp looms before Etheline at an impossibly steep angle. Someone decides the wheelchair needs to be turned around. That accomplished, the helpers back it up the ramp, some pushing, some pulling, the rolling motion of the dock making their movements haphazard. Etheline hangs on tight.

Nearby in the parking lot is Chris’ grandniece, Czerny Levis, 20. She is painting festive designs on children’s faces, but her life at the moment feels anything but festive. She and her twin brother share the sad distinction of being the last young native islanders left on Daufuskie. And things are not looking promising for Czerny.

A dedicated student, Czerny earned a full scholarship to Technical College of the Lowcountry. She was set to go, but that dream was deferred because the boat schedule did not fit her class schedule. Czerny then planned to move away from Daufuskie to live on the mainland, but those arrangements fell through.

The boat that Czerny and most islanders use is privately owned; its primary function is to serve tourists visiting Daufuskie. Islanders are only allowed to ride on the morning and afternoon runs that are contracted and subsidized by Beaufort County and the State of South Carolina. Middle-of-the-day runs are reserved for visitors.

What this means in practical terms for Daufuskie Islanders is that a single appointment or grocery shopping trip turns into a 9-hour sojourn. The boat schedule also puts islanders who have a 9 to 5 job at a disadvantage. Unless you own a boat— and have a place to tie it up overnight— it’s impossible to live at home and work full-time off the island, so some people make arrangements to stay with friends or relatives. Those with higher incomes often stay in hotels, but those with limited incomes and limited connections have limited options. Like Czerny, they’re stuck.

Limited access to Daufuskie is not just a problem for individuals. It’s a problem for Beaufort County, too. It’s losing millions in property tax dollars because the island, within spitting distance of the wealth and grandeur of Hilton Head, is so inaccessible. Many parcels lie vacant. And because of the lack of affordable visitor access, the county loses out on thousands of dollars in accommodations and hospitality taxes.

There are, of course, arguments against further development on the Sea Islands. With that in mind, Beaufort County and the islanders have worked together for more than five years to create a state-of-the-art, form-based code that streamlines the development process and results in a sensibly designed, sustainable community.

There is another reason why so many believe Daufuskie Island needs to be easier to get to: the entire island is a National Historic Landmark District. It deserves to be more accessible to all Americans who are interested in the culture, heritage and natural history of the Sea Islands. And with its miles of sandy lanes and the quiet golf cart as the most popular means of transportation, it is a haven for those who crave respite from high-decibel city living.

So if this national treasure is just a short boat ride away from Hilton Head and Savannah, what’s keeping the state and local governments from running a regular, ADA-accessible public ferry? It takes time for careful planning and research. It turns out that a wide range of people from Tybee Island all the way up to Edisto Island are interested in using marine transit to meet the region’s transportation challenges. That’s where SIFT— the Sea Island Ferry Transportation Task Force— comes in. Chair Penny Powell, a retired teacher, grant writer and self-proclaimed “League of Women Voters type” is recruiting volunteers who can help overcome the obstacles to public ferry service, research best practices in ferry systems and advocate for a regional public ferry system.

There is also interest in expanding the ferry system so that it encompasses the newly launched Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. The corridor, which was established by the National Park Service, includes all the African-influenced communities that stretch from Jacksonville, Florida, to Jacksonville, North Carolina.

Daufuskie Island, located between Savannah and Charleston, is at the epicenter of the Gullah-Geechee coast and, among all the remote islands in the corridor, it is the one that would most benefit from the proposed ferry system.

Until then, Daufuskie Island remains as remote as ever.

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To find out more about Daufuskie Island, visit Daufuskie360.net or lowcountryexplorer.com.
To get information about the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, visit gullahgeecheecorridor.org.

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This article sponsored by The Binyah Foundation.

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