MOUNT PLEASANT — Sally Cooke would sit in the evenings in a rocking chair on the porch of the Magwood Lane home, breathing in the fecund smell of the pluff mud in the marsh of Shem Creek. She’d listen to the clangs and chatter of men at work on the docks.
“There were shrimp boats everywhere, crabbers, deep-sea fishermen,” she said. “They would crank up in the morning and it would wake me up. It was lovely.”
Shem Creek in the old days really was something close to the idyllic haunt of shrimpers that its tradition-preserving advocates like to hark back to — the days of boats tied off three abreast and families stopping to buy shrimp right off the boats at the docks.
It was a vista far removed from today’s clogged commercial and recreational spot.
Sally Cooke Christian, now of Columbia, moved to her rented room in the 1960s, fresh out of Winthrop College. The first time she saw where it was, she fell in love, she said. “It looked like home.”
Today that stretch of the creek is lined with “giant mansions,” as she describes them, columned houses along where docks used to run. It’s a mix of those upscale residences, waterfront restaurants and water sports businesses. It’s crowded with power boats, kayaks and paddleboards.
The creek has become a controversy, the stand of a grassroots fight by groups like Save Shem Creek against the push for more urban development.
In the old days, the waterfront was as seasoned as the salt air. Photographer Joe Benton recalls coming down to the docks to buy shrimp — for 89 cents per pound — for a New Year’s Eve party while he was at Baptist College. Asked if it were at all like today’s creek, he said, “No, no no. Pristine.”
In the late 1960s, no more than two seafood restaurants operated on the creek, near the bridge, the Lorelei and the Trawler. Ice houses and a gas station were nearby. There were no private, “floating” docks.
The environs were still “country” enough that at the home where Christian stayed, cinder blocks had been placed at the air vents in the foundation to keep out the raccoons.
By the early 1970s, that began to change. More retail businesses moved in. By 1975, a small shopping center, The Common, had opened up, according to the town’s 1980 special area management plan. Other restaurants began to belly up to the waterfront. Then came the big homes.
Over the last decade or two, shrimper after shrimper has been giving up the trade, driven out by catch difficulties, higher costs and prices that haven’t kept up. One of the big complaints heard is that they are getting squeezed out of dock space.
When Benton stepped up to the Coleman Boulevard bridge in 1968 to shoot what has become an iconic shrimp boat shot of the creek, the boats lined both banks. Today, only a half dozen or fewer tie up at Shem Creek.
In what might have been the symbolic passing-of-the-torch, a late-night fire engulfed the Trawler restaurant and burned it to the ground in 1989. Eyewitnesses described the blaze as so hot it steamed moisture off the hull of the Thunderstar moored across the creek. There were 30 shrimp boats tied to the docks at the time.
The Trawler was rebuilt as a more modern-style restaurant with a floating dock. But it eventually closed, like the Lorelei. By 2010, the creek was a trendy, upscale destination, with the fewer-each-year shrimp boats moored in small clumps, the hulls weathered and patchworked.
“Oh, it’s sad,” Christian said. “I know we need industry, and people want some place to go. I don’t mind progress. But I don’t think ‘McMansions’ ought to be able to change the quality of Shem Creek. You need to keep some things the same.”
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