A Place Like Nowhere Else
October 1st, 2018
By Derrick Bracey
The fight to save the historic and treasured Ingram Dunes continues in North Myrtle Beach.
Past the stop-and-go traffic and the cracked asphalt leading to the beachwear stores, adjacent to a rainbow row of newer houses on Hillside Drive in North Myrtle Beach, sits an opening to a maritime forest—9.4 acres of relic dunes.
After you breach the tree line, the sound of passing cars gives way to cicadas. Sandy pathways are littered with pine straw and dead leaves. Scrub oaks grow from ponds of yellow jasmines, honeysuckles, persimmons and sundrops. Greenbriers and flowering yuccas line the paths. Careful of the poison ivy. Muscadine vines dangle from loblolly pines.
Further in, the crash of ocean is somewhere in the distance. The laughter of children playing and footsteps thumping along a path somewhere out of sight. Palmetto, yaupon, cherry, magnolia, juniper, hickory, cedar, pines and dogwood—all the trees fight for sun and rain. The remnants of those that didn’t make it lay at the winners’ roots. Live oaks stretch in whatever direction they need to. Pink ribbons like bloody scars have been tied or spray painted on the larger trees.
The chirps of a half-a-dozen various birds surround you. Squirrels chase each other from branch to branch above you. Ants as big as fingernails scurry below you. You follow a dragonfly in flight—a blur of blue. There’s no logic to it, you just traipse through this maze and up a foothill of loose sand, getting lost.
A Not-So-Brief History of the Ingram Dunes
Around 100,000 years ago, ocean water swelled over coastal plains. According to South Carolina’s coastal geologists, the Ingram Dunes began forming around 80,000 years ago as the water receded. The youngest portions of the dunes are estimated to be 12,000 years old.
Shore winds funneled through the center of the Grand Strand’s great curve between Georgetown to the south and Southport to the north, creating a catchall. Sand undulated and rose, grinding grain against grain, making it fine for thousands of years. The mature vegetation allowed them to gain more sand than they lost each year.
Vegetation cultivated—more than 140 types. Live oak roots dug deep on top, building natural barriers along the coast. Animals—multitudes of nesting birds and owls, box turtles, tree frogs, toads, an assortment of reptiles and amphibians, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, possum, grey and red foxes and every insect from rolly-pollies to dragonflies. The dunes rose to a current high point of 50 feet above sea level. The only comparable dunes are in the Yawkey Preserve near Georgetown.
Around 8,000 years ago, Native-Americans lived amongst the dunes. Tribes like the Waccamaw shell-fished in the estuaries along the coast. Europeans arrived, and the Grand Strand became part of the British colonies. They established a King’s Highway along the coast from a preexisting trade route.
Throughout the 19th century, settlers braved the wilderness between Georgetown and Wilmington. In the early 1900s, a small resort was built in Myrtle Beach. By the 1930s, large tracts of land began to be developed by several families along North Myrtle Beach’s coast.
In 1937, the Ingram family, owners of a lumber company from Effingham, South Carolina, bought around 400 acres. This became known as Ingram Beach. A few houses were built. Designated streets and plats were laid out during the economic boom after WWII. This construction consisted of the traditional beach houses where wealthy families from the inland would spend their summers.
Except for a few trails, the Ingram Dunes were left untouched. Houses sprung up, surrounding the dunes. North Myrtle Beach saw tourist attractions come and go. Neon lights burned bright and faded. Smackdab in the heart of this progress sits a minimally-disturbed natural history—a relic of the Old Stone Age—the Paleolithic.
For 70 years, children played here. Adults walked through these dunes and forgot their troubles.
“I grew up on those dunes, riding my bike and walking along the trails,” says Morgan Livingston, a lifelong neighbor of Ingram Dunes. “A lot has changed since I was a kid, not necessarily for the better. Ingram Dunes is one of the only remaining areas that shows what the natural environment was like here before development occurred.”
This nature sanctuary forms an environmental corridor with the nearby 20-acre wetlands. They survived and thrived because of their height and their inconsistent landscape, but these dunes face a new threat—the modern machines of developers. Bulldozers and bush-hogs would make short work flattening these up-and-down slopes.
On November 1, 2016, the city of North Myrtle Beach placed rezoning signs in Ingram Dunes. “They put them way back in the woods, so they were hard to see,” says Jane Vernon. Her house neighbors the dunes on land bought by her family in the 1930s. “We went door to door, trying to get the word out about what they were planning.”
What the owners of Ingram Dunes were planning was a 31-home, two-street development. Aside from a couple of trees, the dunes would be lost.
“We didn’t have a voice. We didn’t really know the members of the city council,” says Damien Triouleyre, who’s become one of the Keepers of the Dunes. He’s vacationed in North Myrtle Beach since 1975 and retired there 10 years ago. From the woodlands of the Berkshires in Massachusetts, he found relief in Ingram Dunes. “I go there for solitude, to renew my spirit. We had to do something.”
They rallied dozens of North Myrtle Beach citizens to attend the city’s rezoning meeting. After that, they rallied dozens more for the next city council meeting. “We were told the city couldn’t touch the land because the owners were inside the written laws,” says Vernon.
In 2017, Triouleyre had conversations with one of the owners, James Anderson. “He [Anderson] said they were not hell-bent on development. He told me he’d just as soon see the dunes preserved.” Anderson attached an asking price of $4 million for the dunes.
The City of North Myrtle Beach was brought into the fold. Officials agreed to study dune preservation and explore applying for grant options, but no commitment was made to fund the purchase of the dunes, either wholly or in part.
Triouleyre admits interactions with the owners and city council has been “a long and slow journey.” He adds, “They support us emotionally. We’ve developed healthy and mutual relationships with much of the city’s staff, but they’ve said we had to make it happen.”
Vernon and Triouleyre founded Preserve Ingram Dunes and canvassed the city with signs. They circulated petitions, gathering 250 signatures on paper and 600 signatures online. Preservation presentations were given to local clubs. They held rallies beside the dunes. Local news outlets covered it as a David-versus-Goliath story. A website was built. Social media buzz was created. The floor of the North Myrtle Beach City Council and their workshops were invaded by preservationists. The dunes became a talking point during elections.
South Carolina botanists and ecologists walked the dunes to gather data. Conservation and preservation groups swooped in to help— the South Carolina State Department of Natural Resources and the Heritage Trust Program, the South Carolina Conservation Bank, the South Carolina Environmental Law Project (SCELP) and the Open Space Institute. Some of them swooped back out.
Builders, Realtors and law firms associated with the dunes’ projects have come and gone, most of them citing complications, opposition and expense as reasons for their departures.
Horry County Council approved a $10,000 donation from Councilman Harold Worley to help purchase the dunes. South Carolina Senator Greg Hembree lent his voice in support with the South Carolina Conservation Bank and the Heritage Trust. State Representative Greg Duckworth wrote a public letter to support the dunes. Local businesses Elliott Realty and Duffy Street Restaurants joined the grassroots movement.
Iconic co-host of Wheel of Fortune and North Myrtle Beach native Vanna White spoke up for the dunes. “Some of my fondest memories of growing up are playing in the Hillside Dunes,” she says. “They are a treasure of North Myrtle Beach and should be preserved.”
“I was pleasantly surprised by the widespread support of the community,” says Brittany Callahan, co-founder of the North Myrtle Beach Historic Preservation Society and actively involved with Preserve Ingram Dunes.
A Save Ingram Dunes Gala was organized and $8,000 raised toward the purchase of Ingram Dunes. So far, they’ve raised over $50,000 and received another $50,000 in pledges. “We’ve come so far,” says Triouleyre.
Harsh but Cordial Floor of North Myrtle Beach’s City Council
In June, South Carolina DHEC held a meeting to hear local concerns about a stormwater permit that could halt dune development. Amy Armstrong, attorney and head of SCELP, represented Preserve Ingram Dunes. She called for DHEC to strike down the permit.
“Leveling relic dunes that soak up rainwater and replacing it with roofing and pavement will result in stormwater overflow, causing flooding in our neighborhoods and pollution runoff. Dirty water diverted to the beaches creates unsafe swimming conditions,” says Callahan. She notes the city and residents of North Myrtle Beach spend a lot of money on stormwater mitigation. “Purchasing and preserving Ingram Dunes is a common sense measure toward saving natural history, conserving a wildlife habitat and reducing stormwater costs—a win-win.”
During city council meetings, there’s time for public remarks. Locals step up and voice their concerns during an allotted three minutes. When Triouleyre steps up to the microphone, he looks tired. More than tired, he looks haggard.
“Preserving Ingram Dunes has become the focus of my life,” says Triouleyre. “I work long hours each day to bring awareness of the threat to the dunes and marshal support.”
There’s familiarity between the council and the citizens. Triouleyre compliments the council, he offers appreciation for their commitment to the dunes. He airs concerns about the current “bush-hogging” on the edge of the dunes. He says, “There’s a lot of work to do. We need to look at the tree ordinance.”
North Myrtle Beach is still a small city. Some of the council played in these dunes as children. Some of them recently walked the dunes, discovered or remembered why they’re important. This meeting goes like most about the dunes—an old-fashioned discussion of progress versus preservation.
“I was raised on Edge Drive, right around the corner from the dunes,” says Jay Baldwin, a councilman who recently walked the dunes with Mayor Hatley. “After school and in the summer, we’d go to the dunes and build tree forts. It’s the last undeveloped area east of the waterway, and it’s a reminder of what the beach used to be like.”
The council has met and workshopped a development ordinance to put regulations on relic dune development and traffic patterns, but the ordinance had been altered to remove the dune portion.
“I’m concerned about the landowners if we move ahead with an ordinance,” says City Manager Mike Mahaney. “It puts an artificial deadline on the relic dunes. A clear signal to start cutting down trees before we put the ordinance in place.”
They discuss money. They say $2.6 or $2.7 million is needed. They discuss where the money is coming from. It’s become evident that an outside source is needed.
The city recently pledged $500,000. They’ve searched and applied for grants. They’ve set up a donation drive and are taking donations at City Hall and are in negotiations with both the owners of the dunes and the South Carolina Conservation Bank to pay a portion of the purchase price.
“We cannot really discuss the negotiations, but I can say there’s a lot of interest and need from public donations and funding,” says Councilman Baldwin.
The North Myrtle Beach Area Historical Museum and the North Myrtle Beach Historic Preservation Society are both always open to donations as well.
Triouleyre is still concerned about the idling bush-hogs and wants to discuss the possibilities of payment options, but Mayor Marilyn Hatley is firm. “All we [the city] have to give is $500,000,” she says. “We can’t take money away from another project to save one isolated project, and it is isolated.” She claims no one will travel to see them.
Triouleyre disagrees with the idea of “isolated” in this context. “The dunes could be like the Cherry Grove Marsh Walk,” he says, referring to Heritage Shores Nature Preserve, created in 2007 with seven acres of walking paths. “The dunes need very little maintenance. You could put it on the preservation website.”
Mayor Hatley leaves it with “Let’s hope and pray we get the money from the conservation fund, but I don’t want to lead you down a path where you think we can give you $2.7 million.”
Seemingly, the next steps are for the city and the Ingram family to agree on a final purchase price and the terms of the sale. Plus, the citizens need to raise a whole lot of money.
“I wish the city council would be more transparent about their intentions and actions regarding the purchase and preservation of Ingram Dunes,” says Callahan. “Sometimes, I feel like they’re just hoping we’ll go away, but I’m in it for the long haul.”
Mary Jones became involved with Preserve Ingram Dunes last fall. She leaves the meeting feeling like the dunes are doomed. “Several council members expressed concern about the cost,” she says. “They told Damien [Triouleyre] not to get his hopes up in regard to saving the dunes.”
Nighttime in the Relic Dunes
After the meeting, as darkness sets in, the dunes are still alive with cicadas, and tree frogs and toads join in the orchestra. A canopy of trees stretches overhead and, without interference of city light, the stars shine brilliant through openings.
The trails lead you through spots that have found names of honor over the years—Eagles’ Nest, Grande Allee, Grandfather Oak, Sandy Dune, Cedar Paradise and The Secret Path.
“There’s a significant spirit one feels while walking these ancient dunes. There’s something special here,” says Triouleyre.
If you stood atop of the highest point of the dunes in the dark and pointed the beam of a flashlight down, you’d feel the steepness of the drop-off, you’d see the grade filled with broken branches. Maybe the headlights of a car would pass through the branches, and you’d remember you were in the middle of a city.
“North Myrtle Beach doesn’t have enough neighborhood parks,” says Triouleyre. “In the best cities, parks are a 10-minute walk away from 80 percent of its residents. This could be a park and a nature preserve.”
“I know preservation and conservation are not the easiest things to do, but it’s the right thing,” says Callahan, who lives in and helped renovate Vanna White’s childhood home and was careful in maintaining the original craftsmanship.
“Respectful development is fine, but an area as delicate as Ingram Dunes shouldn’t be developed,” says Jones, who’s become an ecology buff since joining Preserve Ingram Dunes. “These dunes survived ice ages, the movement of the beachfront. All the purposes they serve we don’t presently understand.”
“The city just celebrated its 50th year. It’s time to write the next chapter of our history,” says Callahan. “These dunes are a historical, ecological and geological landmark. Once they’re gone, there’s no way to replace them.”