Between 1875 and 1900 Port Royal surpassed Beaufort in importance in both shipping and commercial activities.
(Beaufort County; 2020 pop. 14,516). Founded as a town and railroad terminus in 1874, Port Royal has a history of French (1562), Spanish (1565–1587), Scots (1684), and English (1670) settlement. In 1869 the Union army veteran Stephen Caldwell Millett began construction of the Port Royal Railroad between Augusta, Georgia, and Battery Point on the southern end of Port Royal Island. Town, railroad, and harbor facilities followed, and Port Royal was incorporated on March 9, 1874.
Between 1875 and 1900 Port Royal surpassed Beaufort in importance in both shipping and commercial activities. In 1880 some southeastern railroads pooled their lines “to establish a through traffic from the Ohio River to Savannah, Charleston and Port Royal.” Two years later Congress authorized construction of a coaling dock and naval storehouse at Port Royal, followed by a naval dry dock and a large, brick sail loft on nearby Parris Island.
Commercial development of phosphate deposits in the Port Royal vicinity attracted shipping to load processed phosphate, as well as area lumber and cotton. The 1880s and 1890s saw the town establish regular railroad connections with inland cities, as well as passenger ship service to New York, Liverpool, and Bremen. Before the 1893 hurricane damaged phosphate boats and installations, it was said that more ships loaded phosphate in and near Port Royal than in Charleston and Savannah combined. Nearby Parris Island and the U.S. Naval Station also aided the local economy, and by 1883 Port Royal’s population stood at 389.
When the phosphate industry declined in South Carolina, so did much of Port Royal’s prosperity. A series of disastrous storms in the 1890s severely injured phosphate operations, as did state tax increases and the development of new phosphate deposits in Florida. An even greater blow came to Port Royal in 1902 with the relocation of the navy yard to Charleston. In addition, local cotton cultivation plummeted with the arrival of the boll weevil in 1919.
But as phosphate mining and cotton farming dwindled, other economic activities stepped in to revitalize Port Royal. Military training during World War I by army aviators and U.S. Marines, followed by the growth of fishing and shrimping in the 1930s spurred an economic revival in Port Royal. World War II and postwar Marine Corps training on Parris Island further contributed to growth. In 1958 Port Royal saw the dedication of a state port installation, which led to renewed shipping and railroad activities. Development of the town’s waterfront, the expansion of residential housing, the continued existence of the Marine Corps Training Depot, and a vibrant seafood and tourist industry all promised a bright future for Port Royal at the end of the twentieth century. The arrival was a long time in coming. As the 1991 History of the South Carolina State Ports Authority sagely observed, “of South Carolina’s three ports, the Port of Port Royal was the first to be visited by European colonial powers, but it was the last of the three to decide just what kind of a port it was suited to be.”
Beaufort County Joint Planning Commission. Port Royal Development Plan. Beaufort, S.C.: Planning Commission, 1975.
McTeer, J. E. Adventure in the Woods and Waters of the Lowcountry. Beaufort, S.C.: Beaufort Book Company, 1972.
South Carolina State Ports Authority. History of the South Carolina State Ports Authority. Charleston: South Carolina State Ports Authority, 1991.