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State park: Ranger pedal history on bike tours

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Rangers are leading bicycle tours of Huntington Beach State Park this winter to familiarize residents and visitors with the park’s natural assets and history. The tours are free with the $5 park admission. The next tour is Friday at 10 a.m.

J.W. Weatherford, assistant manager, and David Baker, senior ranger, will lead the 5-mile rides, scheduled in January and February, making stops along the way to point out interesting aspects of the park that was formed in 1960 when the sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington leased 2,500 acres to the state for $1 a year and the staff’s “love and affection” for the house and the beach.

Anna and Archer Huntington bought four former rice plantations and 3 miles of coastline known as Magnolia Beach in 1929 after she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, Weatherford said. Doctors advised the Huntingtons, residents of Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, to spend winters in a warmer climate. They built their new home, Atalaya, designed like a Moorish castle found off the coasts of Spain and Portugal, between 1931 and ’34. “At the time,” Weatherford said, “the Huntingtons were the No. 1 employer in Georgetown County, just building the house.”

Atalaya and Brookgreen Gardens are connected by the Straight Road, leading from the couple’s home and sculpture studio to the far side of the property where there were stables and animal pens. “When Anna was sculpting in winter and wanted a live animal as a model, she would ring for one of the servants to go and bring it back down the Straight Road,” Weatherford said. “They kept horses, bears, monkeys — anything she was sculpting.”

Her genius, Weatherford said, pointing to the “Fighting Stallions” at the Brookgreen Gardens entry, was in reproducing the anatomy of animals, right down to the muscles and tendons. She was among the first sculptors to use aluminum, he said. During the Depression, Anna Huntington was one of only five American women making $50,000 a year.

The concrete Straight Road and its single gate served as the original entry to the park in 1960. Officials quickly saw the need for an exit gate and attempted to copy the architecture. The decorative elements aren’t much of a match, the ranger points out. Eventually, the entrance was moved a quarter mile north to accommodate RV’s and the park’s 25,000 visitors a year.

The Straight Road is the best place to encounter an alligator in warm weather, Weatherford said. They cross the road, moving from freshwater Mallard Pond to the brackish Mullet Pond to sun and eat. Gators — there are about 60 in the park — also cross the causeway road into the salt marsh to find other food, from crabs to stingrays.

The Straight Road ends at Atalaya’s gate. “Archer Huntington was a lover of everything Spanish,” Weatherford said, “and Atalaya is Spanish for watchtower. “He traveled a lot with his father, being so wealthy, all around Europe and Africa. His favorite place was Spain.”

Weatherford said Archer built Atalaya without blueprints. The living spaces are along the high outside walls with a watchtower in the middle. “The purpose in Spain was to look for pirates,” Weatherford said. “Here, he used it to have running water. A pump on the north side pumped water to a large tank in the tower, and gravity fed water to the rooms below.”

Weatherford said Atalaya was the first residence on the Waccamaw Neck to have electricity. “They paid for lines to be run from Georgtetown,” he said. “Over the rivers, through the woods to Atalaya it went.”

Weatherford said Archer’s construction foreman’s journals reveal his frustration building Atalaya. “Sir,” the journal says, “if you give me a little more information, I would know what you wanted to build here.”

He gave an example. One day, Huntington ordered a brick wall to be built. The masons carefully scraped the excess mortar off the bricks to provide the clean lines of modern day construction. When Huntington saw the wall, he made them tear it down. He wanted the mortar oozing between the bricks because that was the way they did it in Spain. The masons called it the “Huntington Squeeze,” Weatherford said.

The home survived two big hurricanes, Hazel and Hugo. “You can see cracks in the bricks,” Weatherford said. “There were not many things north or south of Charleston that survived as well as Atalaya.”

Weatherford said the Huntingtons left a lasting impression everywhere they lived. Archer’s father, Cornelius Huntington, owned a railway that terminated at the Pacific Ocean in Huntington Beach, Calif. The halfway stop between Brookgreen and the family home in Connecticut was Huntington, W. Va. “They really invested their time and resources,” he said.

The bike tour included a stop at the salt marsh boardwalk near the nature center. Weatherford said the view from the boardwalk gives visitors a feel for the vastness of the 2,500-acre property that is mostly marsh. He pointed out a clump of trees in the distance, Drunken Jack’s Island. It’s called a hammock island because it’s surrounded by salt marsh rather than water. The little island is covered by prickly pear cactus and rough vegetation, he added.

“This boardwalk is the best place to see nature,” Weatherford said, “even more than the one on the north end. Alligators will cross the causeway and enter the salt marsh looking for food. I’ve seen them get blue crabs or stingrays. We’ve got a picture in the nature center of an alligator crossing back over the causeway with a gigantic butterfly ray in its mouth. You can get closer to wildlife on the causeway, but here you are more to yourself.”

Weatherford called the park’s nature center one of the two best in the state park system. It hosts more than 200 school groups a year and has just added a new state-of-the-art jellyfish tank.

The bike tour stopped at the north end of the park where a boardwalk leads from a parking lot to the beach. “This end of the park is a bird sanctuary,” Weatherford said, “so shorebirds can nest on the beach. We’ve got one of the largest shorebird nesting spots on the coast of South Carolina.”

Dogs are not allowed on this end of the beach because of the birds, Weatherford said. An electric fence keeps out predators like coyotes and foxes.

He pointed out a 1.5-mile path to Sandpiper Pond through the maritime forest. There are four observation points for bird watching.

“This, Weatherford said, “is the more natural end of the beach where most locals come.”

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