MOUNT PLEASANT — This town’s newest park is so vast that Charleston County Park and Recreation Director Tom O’Rourke has a novel idea about promoting it.
“I want to do a billboard saying, ‘Welcome to Laurel Hill. Your cellphone won’t work here.’ ”
That might be a slight exaggeration, as O’Rourke’s phone beeped a few times as he recently biked its trails with a few visitors, but he insists there is in fact a dead spot for cell service in the center of these undeveloped 742 acres.
Those who explore the property will find a vast forest of loblolly pine interspersed with some bottomland hardwood, a power line easement, a lake with an island in the middle and a stunning allee of live oaks that speaks to the park’s history as a former rice plantation.
Its 6-mile-plus network of trails opened to the general public late last month, with an entrance from the town’s Park West Recreation Complex, and it already is proving a very popular spot for joggers, cyclists and people taking their dog for a nice long walk.
Those who use Laurel Hill’s trails, which are open from sunrise to sunset, are asked only to put $1 into a box at the trail head near a baseball field, and O’Rourke says he already has proof that the trails are popular and that their users are honest.
“This lady sent me an email saying, ‘I couldn’t fit my dollar in the box,’ ” he said. “It was full.”
Greg Henry recently read that Laurel Hill’s trails were open and he said he has run them every other day ever since.
“I love it,” said Henry, who lives nearby in Park West’s Andover neighborhood. “There’s virtually no noise, but on the weekend, it’s packed.”
It’s unclear exactly when Laurel Hill Plantation was developed, though records show the property was first deeded in 1694.
J. Thomas Hamlin White operated a brickyard here, probably near Horlbeck Creek, had 120 slaves and also raised livestock and cotton around 1860, in the late 1850s, according to research done by New South Associates Inc.
Peter Bonneau took ownership of Laurel Hill during the Civil War, and the research says it’s also unclear whether White or Bonneau built the house that once stood at the end of the allee.
In any case, the house didn’t survive, and while many former slaves eventually acquired part of Laurel Hill and founded what is now known as the Phillips Community, others remained, said Julie Hensley, a planner with the Park and Recreation Commission.
“A lot of African-Americans stayed on here after the house was gone, and raised cattle and had various trades,” she said.
During the 20th century, the land eventually became woods, including a pecan grove, but its history took a turn when John Muller began buying the property.
Muller, a postmaster who served as a Historic Charleston Foundation trustee and the first executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston, bought up this land when it was well beyond the town limits and used it mostly to grow pine and for recreation. It complemented his historic properties that he was preserving on Archdale Street in downtown Charleston.
A lifelong bachelor, Muller was buried at the end of the allee. His granite marker quotes a verse from the biblical book of Isaiah that offers advice to those seeking righteousness: “Look unto the rock whence ye are hewn”
Laurel Hill has been largely off limits since Muller died in 1984.
Boy and Girl scouts have been welcomed to camp here, but a pistol-packing curator kept other would-be trespassers at bay.
The property’s future was clouded somewhat by a legal dispute between lawyers for Newberry College and the Franke Home, both of which were named Muller’s beneficiaries, and others trying to protect the intent of Muller’s will.
Muller called for Laurel Hill “to be maintained in a natural state insofar as possible, while giving to my trustee the right to remove timber. ... (and) to make it an enjoyable place of natural, undeveloped beauty to those who may visit it.”
Some argued that developing a portion of it could be done while respecting Muller’s intent, but others, including S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster, disagreed. McMaster said beneficiaries’ desire to extract more money from the property was “irrelevant.”
Their dispute was resolved in 2011, when the trustee for Muller’s estate agreed to lease the property to the county Park and Recreation Commission for $6.5 million for 25 years, with options to renew for 75 more years.
And the $6.5 million — based on a current appraisal of the land’s value with Muller’s restrictions on it — will be applied toward the purchase price whenever Muller’s estate, the county and state lawmakers eventually agree to a sale.
O’Rourke said there’s no rush to make such a deal because the public cares less about ownership than about how they can use it.
Laurel Hill’s proximity to the town’s Park West Recreation Complex at 1251 Park West Blvd. has been a big help because the commission does not have to worry about providing parking or restrooms in order to open the property to the public.
The trails are wide, flat and firm. Most were created as firebreaks and could accommodate cars and trucks. Earlier this month, only a 40-yard portion of the red trail had ankle-deep water, forcing cyclists to dismount and skirt around the big puddles.
The Park and Recreation Commission ultimately will undertake a master plan for Laurel Hill to see what other public uses might work there.
One big question will be how the widening of S.C. Highway 41 will affect the property. O’Rourke noted that if a new bridge were to replace the current box culvert under the highway south of the Phillips Community, then it would be possible for kayakers to navigate Horlbeck Creek between Laurel Hill and Palmetto Islands County Park.
But whatever the new plan is, don’t expect much change.
“This man donated this land for a reason, and we should honor that, period. He wanted it left in its natural state,” O’Rourke said. “To have this in the middle of Mount Pleasant, with all the growth and congestion, is going to be really nice in 100 years.”
For Henry and others already using the trails, it’s really nice today. Henry has seen the gravestone at the allee’s end but only recently learned whose grave it was — and how crucial a role this person played in the property’s undisturbed state.
“God bless him,” Henry said of Muller. “There would be 10,000 condos there if he hadn’t done it.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.