The island has a rich history that started with seasonal occupation by native Americans thousands of years ago, and continued with European exploration and the Sea Island Cotton trade. It became an important base of operations for the Union blockade of the Southern ports during the Civil War. Once the island fell to Union troops, hundreds of ex-slaves flocked to Hilton Head, which is still home to many 'native islanders', many of whom are descendants of freed slaves known as the Gullah (or Geechee) who have managed to hold onto much of their ethnic and cultural identity.
The Town of Hilton Head Island incorporated as a municipality in 1983 and is well known for its "eco-friendly" development. The Town's Natural Resources Division enforces the Land Management Ordinance which minimizes the impact of development and governs the style of buildings and how they are situated amongst existing trees. As a result, Hilton Head Island enjoys an unusual amount of tree cover relative to the amount of development. Approximately 70% of the island, including most of the tourist areas, is located inside gated communities. However, the Town maintains several public beach access points, including one for the exclusive use of town residents, who have approved several multi-million dollar land-buying bond referendums to control commercial growth.
Hilton Head Island offers an unusual number of cultural opportunities for a community its size, including Broadway-quality plays at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, the 120 member full chorus of the Hilton Head Choral Society, the highly-rated Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra, the largest annual outdoor, tented wine tasting event on the east coast, and several other annual community festivals. It also hosts the Verizon Heritage, a stop on the PGA tour which is played on the Harbour Town Golf Links in Sea Pines Resort.
An ancient Shell Ring can be seen near the east entrance to the Sea Pines Forest Preserve. The ring, one of only 20 in existence, is in diameter and is believed to be over 4,000 years old. Archeologists believe that the ring was a refuse heap, created by Native Americans that lived in the interior of the ring, which was kept clear and used as a common area. Two other Shell Rings on Hilton Head were destroyed when the shells were removed and used to make tabby for roads and buildings. The Shell Ring is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is protected by law.
Since the beginning of recorded history in the New World, the waters around Hilton Head Island have been known, occupied and fought for in turn by the English, Spanish, French, and Scots.
A Spanish expedition led by Francisco Cordillo explored the area in 1521, initiating European contact with local tribes.
In 1663, Captain William Hilton sailed on the Adenture from Barbados to explore lands granted by King Charles II to the eight Lords Proprietors. In his travels, he identified a headland near the entrance to Port Royal Sound. He named it "Hilton's Head" after himself. He stayed for several days, making note of the trees, crops, "sweet water" and "clear sweet air".
In 1698, Hilton Head Island was granted as part of a barony to John Bayley of Ballingclough, County of Tipperary, Kingdom of Ireland. Another John Bayley, son of the first, appointed Alexander Trench as the Island's first retail agent. For a time, Hilton Head was known as Trench's Island. In 1729, Trench sold some land to John Gascoine which Gascoine named "John's Island" after himself. The land later came to be known as Jenkin's Island after another owner.
In 1788, a small Episcopal church called the Zion Chapel of Ease was constructed for plantation owners. The old cemetery, located near the corner of William Hilton Parkway and Mathews Drive (Folly Field), is all that remains. Charles Davant, a prominent island planter during the Revolutionary War, is buried there. He was shot by Captain Martinangel of Daufuskie Island in 1781. It is also home to oldest intact structure on Hilton Head Island, the Baynard Mausoleum, which was built in 1846.
William Elliott II of Myrtle Bank Plantation grew the first crop of Sea Island Cotton in South Carolina on Hilton Head Island in 1790.
Fort Walker was a Confederate fort in what is now Port Royal Plantation. The fort was a station for Confederate troops and its guns helped protect the wide entrance to Port Royal Sound, which is fed by two slow moving and navigable rivers, the Broad River and the Beaufort River. It was vital to the Sea Island Cotton trade and the southern economy. On October 29, 1861, the largest fleet ever assembled in North America moved South to seize it. In the Battle of Port Royal, the fort came under attack by the U.S. Navy, and on November 7, 1861, it fell to over 12,000 Union troops. The fort would be renamed Fort Welles, in honor of Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy.
Hilton Head Island would have tremendous significance in the Civil War, becoming an important base of operations for the Union blockade of the Southern ports, particularly Savannah and Charleston. The Union would also build a military hospital on Hilton Head Island with a frontage and a floor area of .
Hundreds of ex-slaves flocked to Hilton Head Island, where they could buy land, go to school, live in government housing, and serve in what was called the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers (although in the beginning, many were "recruited" at the point of a bayonet). A community called Mitchelville (in honor of General Ormsby M. Mitchel) was constructed on the north end of the island to house them.
The Leamington Lighthouse was built in the 1870s on the southern edge of what is now Palmetto Dunes.
On August 27, 1893, the Sea Islands Hurricane made landfall near Savannah, Georgia with a storm surge of and swept north across South Carolina, killing over a thousand and leaving tens of thousands homeless.
An experimental steam cannon guarding Port Royal Sound was built around 1900 in what is now Port Royal Plantation. The cannon was fixed but its propulsion system allowed for long range shots for the time.
In 1931, Wall Street tycoon, physicist, and patron of scientific research, Alfred Lee Loomis along with his brother-in-law and partner, Landon K. Thorne, purchased on the island (over 63% of the total land mass) for about $120,000 to be used as a private game reserve.
On the Atlantic coast of the island are large concrete gun platforms that were built to defend against a possible invasion by the Axis powers of World War II. Platforms like these can be found all along the eastern seaboard. The Mounted Beach Patrol and Dog Training Center on Hilton Head Island trained U.S. Coast Guard Beach Patrol personnel to use horses and dogs to protect the southeastern coastline of the U.S.
In the early 1950s, three lumber mills contributed to the logging of of the island. The island population was only 300 residents. Prior to 1956, access to Hilton Head was limited to private boats and a state-operated ferry. The island's economy centered on shipbuilding, cotton, lumbering, and fishing.
The James F. Byrnes Bridge was built in 1956. It was a two-lane toll swing bridge constructed at a cost of $1.5 million that opened the island to automobile traffic from the mainland. The swing bridge was hit by a barge in 1974 which shutdown all vehicle traffic to the island until the Army Corps of Engineers built and manned a pontoon bridge while the bridge was being repaired. The swing bridge was replaced by the current four-lane bridge in 1982.
The beginning of Hilton Head as a resort started in 1956 with Charles Fraser developing Sea Pines Resort, with the center piece being Harbour Town. Fraser was a committed environmentalist who changed the whole configuration of the marina at Harbour Town to save an ancient live oak. It came to be known as the Liberty Oak, known to generations of children who watched singer and song writer Gregg Russell perform under the tree for over 25 years. Fraser was buried next to the tree when he died in 2002.
Also in 1969, the Hilton Head Island Community Association successfully fought off the development of a BASF chemical complex on the shores of Victoria Bluff (now Colleton River Plantation). Soon after, the Association and other concerned citizens "south of the Broad" fought the development of off-shore oil platforms by Brown & Root (a division of Halliburton) and ten-story tall liquefied natural gas shipping spheres by Chicago Bridge & Iron. These events helped to polarize the community, and the Chamber of Commerce started drumming up support for the Town to incorporate as a municipality. After the Four Seasons Resort (now Hilton Head Resort) was built along William Hilton Parkway (derisively referred to as "stack-a-shacks" by some Town residents), a referendum of incorporation was passed in May of 1983. Hilton Head Island had become a town. The Land Management Ordinance was passed by the Town Council in 1987. Disney's Hilton Head Island Resort opened in 1996. The Cross Island Parkway opened in January 1997. An indoor smoking ban in bars, restaurants, and public places took effect on May 1, 2007.
The Town of Hilton Head Island incorporated as a municipality in 1983 and has jurisdiction over the entire Island except Mariner's Cove, Blue Heron Point, and Windmill Harbor. The Town of Hilton Head Island has a Council-Manager form of government. The Town Manager is the chief executive officer and head of the administrative branch and is responsible to the municipal council for the proper administration of all the affairs of the Town. The Town Council exercises all powers not specifically delegated to the Town Manager. The Mayor has the same powers, duties, and responsibilities as a member of Town Council. In addition, the Mayor establishes the agenda for Town Council meetings, calls special meetings, executes contracts, deeds, resolutions, and proclamations not designated to the Town Manager, and represents the Town and ceremonial functions.
Town departments include Building & Fire Codes, Business License, Code Enforcement, Finance, Fire & Rescue, Human Resources, Legal, Municipal Court, Planning, and Public Projects & Facilities.
The Town had a budget of $74,753,260 for fiscal year 2006/2007. It consists of three separate fiscal accounting funds: the General Fund, the Capital Projects Fund, and the Debt Service Fund. The General Fund is the operating fund for the Town and accounts for all financial resources of the Town except the Capital Projects Fund and the Debt Service Fund. The Capital Projects Fund is used to acquire land and facilities, and improve public facilities, including roads, bike paths, fire stations, vehicle replacement, drainage improvements, and park development. The Debt Service Fund accounts for the accumuation of resources and the payment of debt. On Tuesday, June 5, 2007, the Town Council approved a $93,154,110 budget for fiscal year 2007/2008 on the first reading with a vote of 6-0.
Office holders as of February 2008:
Council mission statement:
According to the United States Census Bureau, the Town has a total area of 55.5 square miles (143.9 km²). Of that, 42.1 square miles(108.9 km²) of it is land, and 13.5 square miles (34.9 km²) or 24.28% is water.
The terrain of a barrier island is determined by a dynamic beach system with offshore bars, pounding surf, and shifting beaches; as well as grassy dunes behind the beach, maritime forests with wetlands in the interiors, and salt or tidal marshes on the lee side, facing the mainland. A typical barrier island has a headland, a beach and surf zone, and a sand spit.
The Coastal Discovery Museum, in conjunction with the SC Department of Natural Resources, patrols the beaches from May through October as part of the Sea Turtle Protection Project. The purpose of the project is to inventory and monitor nesting locations, and if necessary, move them to more suitable locations. During the summer months, the museum sponsors the Turtle Talk & Walk, which is a special tour designed to educate the public about this endangered species. To protect Loggerhead Sea Turtles, a Town ordinance stipulates that artificial lighting must be shielded so that it cannot be seen from the beach, or it must be turned off by 10:00 p.m. from May 1 to October 31 each year.
The waters around Hilton Head Island are one of the few places on Earth where dolphins routinely use a technique called "strand feeding" whereby schools of fish are herded up onto mud banks, and the dolphins lie on their side while they feed before sliding back down into the water.
The saltmarsh estuaries of Hilton Head Island are the feeding grounds, breeding grounds, and nurseries for many saltwater species of game fish, sport fish, and marine mammals. The dense plankton population gives the coastal water its "murky" brown-green coloration. Plankton support marine life including oysters, shrimp and other invertebrates, and bait-fish species including Menhaden and Mullet, which in turn support larger fish and mammal species that populate the local waterways. Popular sport fish in the Hilton Head Island area include the Red Drum (or Spot Tail Bass), Spotted Sea Trout, Sheepshead, Cobia, and Tarpon.
As of the census of 2000, there were 33,862 people, 14,408 households, and 9,898 families residing in the town, on a land area of 42.06 square miles (108.94 km²). The population density was 805.1 people per square mile (310.8/km²). There were 24,647 housing units at an average density of 586.0 per square mile (226.3/km²).
Although the town occupies most of the land area of the island, it is not coterminous with it; there is a small part near the main access road from the mainland, William Hilton Parkway, which is not incorporated into the town. Hilton Head (the island) therefore has a slightly higher population (34,407 in Census 2000, defined as the Hilton Head Island Urban Cluster) and a larger land area (42.65 sq mi or 110.45 km²) than the town. The Hilton Head Island-Beaufort Micropolitan Area, which includes Beaufort and Jasper Counties and had a 2005 estimated year-round population of 159,247.
The racial makeup of the town was 85.33% White, 8.26% African American, 0.14% Native American, 0.55% Asian, 0.02% Pacific Islander, 4.48% from other races, and 1.21% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 11.48% of the population.
There were 14,408 households out of which 20.9% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 59.6% were married couples living together, 6.2% had a female householder with no husband present, and 31.3% were non-families. 23.8% of all households were made up of individuals and 11.3% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.32 and the average family size was 2.68.
In the town the population was spread out with 17.3% under the age of 18, 6.9% from 18 to 24, 24.5% from 25 to 44, 27.3% from 45 to 64, and 24.1% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 46 years. For every 100 females there were 100.2 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 99.0 males.
The median income for a household in the town was $60,438, and the median income for a family was $71,211. Males had a median income of $37,262 versus $30,271 for females. The per capita income for the town was $36,621. About 4.7% of families and 7.3% of the population were below the poverty line, including 9.4% of those under age 18 and 2.7% of those age 65 or over.
Hilton Head Island is part of the Hilton Head Island-Beaufort Micropolitan Statistical Area which includes Beaufort and Jasper counties and has a total estimated 2005 population of 159,247 (U.S. Census Bureau). According to the more detailed data available in the 2000 census, the population included in this micropolitan area (which actually was designated after the census itself) was 64% urban and 36% rural. It includes the urban clusters of Beaufort (2000 pop.: 46,128), Hilton Head Island (34,407), Bluffton (5,848), and Ridgeland (3,616). The urban clusters of Hilton Head Island and Bluffton will probably be merged by the 2010 Census.
Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue began operations July 1, 1993 as a consolidation of the former Sea Pines Forest Beach Fire Department, the Hilton Head Island Fire District, and the Hilton Head Island Rescue Squad. It is a career department that provides fire suppression and emergency medical services (EMS) at the advanced life support level. Special operations capabilities include HAZMAT, urban search and rescue (USAR), confined space rescue, trench rescue, and rope rescue. The department is accredited by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International (CFAI).
There are seven fire stations on Hilton Head Island. Providing professional fire protection and emergency medical care
Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue also works with Bluffton Township Fire Department as a sponsoring agency for two of South Carolina's designated special teams: one of the state's Hazardous Materials/Weapons of Mass Destruction Response Teams and one of the four Regional Urban Search and Rescue Response Teams.
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