The Marines Arrive at Parris Island
Amphitrite testing the dry dock 1895
Before there were Marines on Parris Island, the Navy maintained a small station that had been opened in 1889 as a coaling and supply depot. In 1890, Navy officials decided to enlarge the base from a coaling station to a repair facility, and a contract for a dry dock was issued to Justin McCarthy. To make way for the dry dock, the flagstaff, belfry, water tower, windmill, blacksmith shop and Quarters B were all moved to new sites. Quarters B was moved around Quarters A, 200 feet to the southeast, and placed on raised foundations. A new artesian well, boat wharf and a residence at the head of the dry dock were started. Requests were turned in for more officers housing, a Marine barracks, a hospital and a water closet to replace the common pit outhouse then in use. It was recommended that a modern water closet for 50 men be built. It was also urged that the government take over the entire island since the local landowners were demanding exorbitant prices for their property. If necessary, the engineers recommended that the government use eminent domain to obtain the island.
In late June 1891, work began on the dry dock. To celebrate the beginning of the new construction, a number of state militia units from Georgia and South Carolina, including the Beaufort Volunteer Artillery, arrived on Parris Island. They were greeted by Lt. Lyman and the station’s new engineer, Lt. George Mackay. To mark the first pile being driven into the ground, the units fired artillery salutes, and bands played patriotic songs.
Also at this time, the first Marine detachment of two corporals and 10 privates arrived on Parris Island. Under the command of 1st Sgt. Richard Donovan, the Marines were instructed to watch over the civilian laborers, who were considered to be unsavory. The Marines first lived in tents until cool weather forced them into the coal shed. Two years would pass before a barracks was completed for the Marine detachment.
In 1892, work on the dry dock forced the moving of Quarters A 500 feet to the southwest where it was rebuilt along the dry dock’s southern end. Once in the location, it became home to Capt. Lester A. Beardslee, USN, who now commanded the naval station. Work on the dry dock was delayed by the powerful 1893 hurricane that swept through Port Royal. Water covered Parris Island. While no military personnel were lost, it was reported that the storm killed half of the civilians living on the island.
Once the island recovered from the hurricane, work resumed on the dry dock, and in May 1895, the project was completed. After some dredging, the facility was tested by the monitor Amphitrite from Aug. 15-17, 1895.
The dry dock was one of the largest built in the United States. Made of wood, the structure was like a giant amphitheater descending into the water, and was 26 feet deep, 104 feet wide and almost 450 feet long. Around the dry dock ran a railway that carried a huge marine crane.
Once a ship entered the dry dock, an iron gate was towed into position sealing the open end. Water was then pumped out and the vessel settled onto the woodwork where the ship would be held in place by large wooden beams while the repairs were carried out.
In 1893, a barracks was constructed for the Marines (Building 5), and from 1895 to 1900, more buildings were constructed, including machine shops (Buildings 10, 11 and 18), a hospital, a paint shop (Building 19) and a headquarters building (Building 17). The facility supplied and serviced numerous ships during the Spanish American War, and plans were made to build two larger, concrete dry docks, but these were never built. By 1908, the Navy, under pressure from South Carolina politicians, moved their installation to Charleston. With questions about the station’s future swirling about, Marines were left to guard the installation whose future remained clouded.