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South Carolina – James Island History

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The Calm Eye In The Storm

The debate heard throughout Charleston County and Metro Charleston is over development. At Daniel Island, the debate is over the port. In Hollywood, it's over the widening of the highway. On Johns Island, residents question the extension of the Mark Clark. In East Cooper, who would have ever thought that Awendaw would no longer be "out in the country" or that Highway 41 went somewhere other than to Hellhole Swamp. The "D" word is even being talked about in distant locations like St. George, Ravenel, and McClellanville. On James Island, you might as well quote some witty saying involving spilt milk or water under the bridge.

Yet, in all this pressure to develop, with all these newcomers thinking that housing here is a "deal," there is one place that sits like the calm eye in the storm. It looks today much as it did in the 19th century. The loudest noise is the wake of the shrimp boats splashing against the piers of the docks. The brightest light at night is still the moon and the shore birds and dolphins are still looking for playmates. If you've never been, this is Rockville.

It's surprising how many people don't quite know where Rockville is or how to get there. It sounds like the "lost city." Well, not quite. There is still no stoplight and the road is not littered with signs proclaiming the closing of K-Mart. (The biggest "blue light special" K-Mart ever left me are the now two vacant mammoth buildings formerly occupied by K-Mart.)

For those of you seeking this "calm eye," get on Maybank Highway on James Island driving toward Johns Island. Drive through Johns Island, passing Angel Oak on your left and crossing the creek to Wadmalaw Island. Stay on Maybank Highway until it ends. You've now arrived in Rockville.

In 1666, 4 years before the establishment of Charles Town, the Lords Proprietors sent Lt. Col. Robert Sandiford on a voyage to explore the coast between Cape Romain and Port Royal. He sailed into the North Edisto River noting the live oaks and the "fields of maize greenly flourishing." On June 23, he sailed into a "fair and deep creek" that is today called Bohicket Creek. He landed and declared the whole country by the name of the Province of Carolina for "our Sovereign Lord Charles II, King of England and to the use of the Proprietors." He had landed at present day Rockville.

Benjamin Jenkins purchased a 496-acre tract, which included the site of the present village in 1776. At his death in the 1780s, the tract was divided between his sons, Samuel and Benjamin, Jr. Benjamin Jenkins, Jr.'s plantation at the end of Wadmalaw Island was called the "Rocks." The reference to rocks is thought to come from an outcropping of ore that once covered the bluff along the waterfront. The "Rocks" covered part of the present day village and part of the 18th century Rockland Plantation. A Chapel of Ease for St. Johns was established here and the Vestry Minutes from December 1787 refer to a meeting held at the "Rocklanding on Wadmalaw." The "Rocks" was sold to Benjamin Adams in 1809. Adams is credited with laying out the town of Rockville.

William Seabrook acquired the balance of the original 496-acre tract from the heirs of Samuel Jenkins in 1824. Seabrook then established a landing for the Edisto Island Ferry Company and laid out lots for his ten children and close relatives.

Thus, Rockville was established as a summer village. Johns Island had Legareville; James Island had Johnsonville and Secessionville; Edisto Island had Edingsville; and Wadmalaw Island had Rockville. Micah Jenkins, a Johns Island planter, established his summer home at Rockville prior to 1780. A Rectory was bought in 1836 as the summerhouse for the local rector. Two other homes at Rockville are thought to be built before 1835.

Rockville today has the largest collection of authentic ante-bellum homes in the county. The W. E. Jenkins home, John F. Townsend home, Micah Jenkins home, Major Daniel Jenkins home, Joseph LaRoche home, the Edward D. Bailey house, the old Episcopal Rectory, and the Whaley house are all ante-bellum or earlier and are all still standing today.

Also located at Rockville are the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, both from the ante-bellum period. Grace Chapel is the Chapel of Ease for St. Johns Episcopal Church on Johns Island. This chapel was completed in 1840. The land where the church was originally built did not have clear title. In 1884, the chapel was moved to its present location on land given by Mrs. M. J. Jenkins.

The Presbyterian Church, located on Sea Island Yacht Club Road, was built in the 1850s. It had a tall steeple that was destroyed in the storm of 1893. In June 2000, the church opened its new Family Life Building that blends perfectly into its surroundings even though it is new construction.

During the Civil War, the white planters evacuated Wadmalaw Island and Rockville. When the war was over, freedmen occupied most of the Rockville homes and the Freedman's Bureau set up an office in Rockville. Eventually, most white planters regained control of their family properties.

The Charleston earthquake of 1886 was clearly felt at Rockville, destroying chimneys and separating the main houses from the porches. The Black residents of Rockville and Wadmalaw Island referred to the earthquake as the "Big Shake."

Even more devastating was the hurricane of 1893 and the accompanying tidal wave. The devastation at Wadmalaw and Rockville was so great that the Red Cross sent its president, Clara Barton, to tour the area. Much of the land on the waterfront was lost and many live oaks between the homes and the creek were toppled into the water.

In this same time, a small school operated at Rockville with one teacher, Mrs. Frank Whaley. She taught the village children in the basement of her home. As the children grew, the boys were transported to Porter Academy and the girls were sent to the Confederate Home School for girls in Charleston.

Transportation to Charleston was, of course, by boat. The "Lotta," commanded by Capt. Henry Bullwinkle and the "Mary Draper" operated by the Stevens family provided twice a week service to the city.

Many people associate Rockville with the Rockville Regatta. Ironically this is the only time of year that the village is host to such an enthusiastic party. The yacht races started in 1890 with competition between John Sosnowski of Wadmalaw Island and Jenkins Mikell of Edisto Island. By 1894, Reynolds Jenkins of James Island joined in the competition. This regatta then began as a competition between the sea islands (James, Johns, Wadmalaw, and Edisto Islands), Mt. Pleasant, Beaufort and Charleston, with each community building their boat and putting their best captain and crew aboard.

In 1899, James Island entered a new boat, the "Lizzie Bee," named for the daughter of James Island Yacht Club Commodore Sandiford Stiles Bee. The new boat, captained by "Washy" Seabrook dominated the race, causing Wadmalaw Island to subsequently build a new boat, "Undine." The "Lizzie Bee," "Lizzie Bee II," "Undine," and "Undine II" ruled over the Regatta until 1912. While many of the small families still race at Rockville, the regatta is no longer a club event.

During the summer, Bohicket Creek can get busy with boat traffic. Most of the year, though, it's quiet. Other than the paved roads and utility poles, Rockville looks much like it did in 1850. If you've never been, take a Sunday drive back into time. If its been awhile since you've been, go listen to the wake washing against the docks, listen to the birds, wait for sunset and enjoy looking across Bohicket Creek not to find a single light in view. Remind yourself what all the sea islands once were. Rockville stands as the calm eye in a storm of development. Let's all hope this sleepy village can hang on.


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