Myrtle Beach is a coastal city on the east coast of the United States in Horry County, South Carolina. It is situated on the center of a large and continuous stretch of beach known as the Grand Strand in northeastern South Carolina. It is considered to be a major tourist destination in the Southeast, attracting an estimated 14.6 million visitors each summer. As of the 2010 census, the population of the city is 27,109, with the Myrtle Beach-North Myrtle Beach-Conway combined statistical area population of 329,449.
Technically a man-made island, Myrtle Beach has been separated from the continental United States since 1936 by the Intracoastal Waterway, forcing the city and area in general to develop within a small distance from the coast. In part due to this separation, the area directly west of Myrtle Beach across the waterway remained primarily rural, whereas its northern and southern ends were bordered by other developed tourist towns, North Myrtle Beach and Surfside Beach. Since then, the inland portion of the Myrtle Beach area has developed dramatically and the beach itself is developing westward.
Due to strong erosion and tropical cyclones along the Atlantic Ocean, the city is separated from its beach by large dunes populated with sea grasses, which stabilize the sandy soil underneath and act as a natural seawall against storm surge. In conjunction, the city has also renourished the beach’s sands several times, with one instance almost immediately followed by the landfalls of hurricanes Hugo and Hazel, necessitating a second replenishment to fill in the quick loss of the first.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 16.8 square miles (43.5 km²), of which, 16.76 square miles (43.5 km²) of it is land and 0.04 square miles (0.1 km²) of it (0.12%) is water.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Long Bay area was inhabited by the native Waccamaw Tribe. The Waccamaw used the river for travel and fished along the shore around Little River. Waties Island, the primary barrier island along Long Bay, has evidence of burial and shell mounds, remains of the visiting Waccamaw.
The first European settler along Long Bay arrived in the late 18th Century, attempting to extend the plantation system outward towards the ocean. Records are sparse from this period, with most of the recorded history pieced together from old land grants documents.
These settlers were met with mixed results, producing unremarkable quantities of indigo and tobacco as the coast’s soil was sandy and most of the crop yields were of an inferior quality.
Prior to the American Revolution, the area along the future Grand Strand was essentially uninhabited. Several families received land grants along the coast, including the Withers: John, Richard, William, and Mary. This family received an area around present-day Wither’s Swash, also known as Myrtle Swash or the eight-Mile Swash. A separate grant was granted to James Minor, including a barrier island named Minor Island, now Waties Island, off of the coast near Little River.
Mary Wither’s gravestone at Prince George Winyah Episcopal Church speaks to the remoteness of the former Strand: “She gave up the pleasures of Society and retired to Long Bay, where she resided a great part of her life devoted to the welfare of her children.”
As the American colonies gained independence, the area remained essentially unchanged, and the coast remained barren. George Washington scouted out the Southern states during his term, traveling down theKing’s Highway. He stayed a night at Windy Hill (part of present day North Myrtle Beach) and was led across Wither’s Swash to Georgetown by Jeremiah Vereen.
The Withers family remained one of the few settlers around Myrtle Beach for the next half-century. In 1822, a strong hurricane swept the house of R. F. Withers into the ocean, drowning 18 people inside. The tragedy made the Withers family decide to abandon their plots along the coast.
Original Myrtle Beach Air Force Base during World War II
On February 28, 1899 Burroughs and Collins, predecessor of modern day Burroughs and Chapin, received their charter to build the Conway & Seashore Railroad to transport timber from the coast to inland customers. The railroad began daily service on May 1, 1900 with two wood-burning locomotives. One of the engines was dubbed The Black Maria and came second-hand from a North Carolina logging operation. A community named “Withers” post office was established at the site of the old Swash.
After the railroad was finished, employees of the lumber and railroad company would take train flatcars down to beach area on their free weekends, becoming the first Grand Strand tourists. The railroad terminus was nicknamed “New Town”, contrasting it with the “Old Town”, or Conway.
At the turn of the 19th to 20th century, Franklin Burroughs envisioned turning New Town into a tourist destination rivaling the Florida and northeastern beaches. Burroughs died in 1897, but his sons completed the railroad’s expansion to the beach and opened the Seaside Inn in 1901.
After its original founding, New Town continued to grow until 1957, when it finally incorporated. A contest was held to name the town and Burroughs’ wife suggested honoring the locally abundant shrub, the Southern Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera). So the town was named Myrtle Beach.
In 1937, Myrtle Beach Municipal Airport was built, however it was promptly taken over by the United States Army Air Corps in 1940 and converted into a military base. Commercial flights began in 1976 and shared the runway for over 15 years until the air base closed in 1993. Since then the airport has been named Myrtle Beach International Airport. In 2010 plans to build a new terminal were approved. In 1940, Kings Highway was finally paved, giving Myrtle Beach its first primary highway.