As much as any town can today, the historic colonial port of Georgetown in South Carolina has the look of the old South, and like much of the South it is rife with ghosts. I think I may have a romantic crush on one of them. That's really how I happened to find Georgetown in the first place.
Scattered down the East Coast are several charming old towns that thrived briefly as cosmopolitan centers, and then faded into the pages of history. I think of the shipping port of Salem in Massachusetts, which eventually declined as Boston grew, and nearby Annapolis, the Maryland capital that slept while Baltimore prospered.
By chance, I stumbled this spring across yet another one, Georgetown. Once reputedly the world's rice-exporting capital, it now is a quiet but appealing backwater that was long ago overshadowed by Charleston to the south. Like Salem and Annapolis, however, it has preserved many of the gorgeous old homes built by wealthy families in the town's heyday before the Civil War.
Georgetown is about midway on the 100-mile drive down the South Carolina coast from Myrtle Beach to Charleston. I had never heard of the town before my Carolina trip this spring, and I remained unaware of its colonial significance until I got there. I might have hurried right through, except for Aaron Burr's daughter.
I have read a couple of fairly recent biographies of Burr, the urbane but notorious U.S. vice president who fatally wounded Alexander Hamilton in a duel. One of the saddest periods in Burr's always dramatic life was the tragic death of his intelligent and beautiful daughter Theodosia, wife of the governor of South Carolina, Joseph Alston. Planning to visit her father in New York, Theodosia boarded a ship leaving South Carolina on Dec. 31, 1812. The ship vanished without a trace, an unsolved mystery. Perhaps pirates attacked -- one of the legends surrounding Theodosia -- or it was sunk by a fierce gale known to have hit the coast.
For some unexplainable reason, Theodosia and the story of her untimely death intrigued me. I am usually forgetful of names, but I retain hers. Can I have formed a romantic crush across the centuries? Perhaps. She was one of the most admired women of her day. So it was with astonishment -- and great delight -- that I read her name on a historical marker a few miles outside Georgetown. I am a sucker for these roadside snippets from the past, and more often than not I'm rewarded with an interesting historic anecdote.
The sign informed me that Theodosia and her husband had lived in the Georgetown area. Their homesite is now a part of Brookgreen Gardens, a large sculpture garden just north of town filled with an inviting mix of classically heroic and charmingly whimsical pieces. Indeed, Georgetown is the port from which Theodosia departed to her death. A huge 18th-century mansion, the Man-Doyle House, still stands on Front Street, where she is said to have danced the night before the fatal trip.
I decided I had to stop in the town for a while, drawn by my odd fascination with Theodosia. It is by such unexpected paths that travel discoveries are made. I gave myself an hour's time, but my visit stretched for another as Georgetown's attractions revealed themselves. A weekend would have been more satisfying. Several bed-and-breakfast inns offer lodgings in or near the impressive Georgetown Historic District, which covers several blocks.
Shaded by a canopy of moss-draped oaks, Georgetown sits at the confluence of four rivers forming Winyah Bay. It might have been America's oldest European community, but the Spanish who settled in 1526 were quickly driven out by Indians and disease. The heritage, instead, is British, dating from 1729. More than 50 homes, buildings and sites from the 1700s still remain in the historic district. Information about escorted or self-directed walking tours is available at the Chamber of Commerce. The Harold Kaminski House, built about 1760, is a museum filled with antiques reflecting Georgetown's link to the sea.
Rice is no longer a commercial crop in South Carolina's coastal low country, but Georgetown today boasts a large and active shrimp-fishing fleet, which adds a definite bustle to its attractive waterfront setting. The town's colorful history is full of ghostly legends -- actually, Georgetown County enjoys some fame as the most haunted place in the South -- and the shrimping fleet has its own bag of superstitions.
About 20 shrimp trawlers operate from the Georgetown wharf, all of them sporting tall masts. The top of each mast, I noticed, is painted white. A curious coincidence? I wondered. Not a coincidence at all, but rather something of a safety feature, I was told by Bill Oberst, a young history buff in the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce. His family dates back to the town's colonial origins.
The local lore maintains, said Oberst, that if a shrimping vessel starts to sink, the white mast provides an appropriately clean spot "where the hand of God can grab hold and pull the boat back up to safety." Georgetown's local legends are brought to life in an annual summer theater production called "Ghosts of the Coast."
In my short stay, I strolled along Harbor Walk, a boardwalk that stretches for a couple of blocks along the waterfront, where you can dine pleasantly on fresh shrimp. And I stepped inside the small but very interesting Rice Museum on Front Street, which tells the story of Georgetown's once flourishing rice culture. Before the Civil War, the region supported more than 150 plantations, including one owned by Theodosia and her husband. But the end of slavery made cultivation impractical. Machines were developed that might have replaced slave labor, but they sank deep in the swampy soil of the Low Country.
Just outside Georgetown, a number of the old rice plantations have been restored as private homes. Although these fine old mansions are not open to the public, daily riverboat tours sail past them on the same murky riverways that served the plantations as commercial highways two centuries ago. Watch for alligators on one narrow stretch of the route called "Alligator Alley."
My two hours passed too quickly, as I sniffed the sea air and walked elegant old streets exploring another chapter in America's rich history. Oberst said he can stand under an old oak tree and feel things from the town's long past. I don't doubt him at all. Standing on Front Street before the Man-Doyle House, I easily imagined I saw fair Theodosia enjoying a final dance in the second-floor ballroom before her fateful voyage.
For more information, contact the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 1776, Georgetown, S.C. 29442, (803) 546-8437.