By Robert Behre
The Post and Courier
of Charleston

Charleston, SC (AP) – The new owner of a historic hummock island off the Ashley River understands why people are curious about what he’s up to – the island once held a mausoleum of a prominent Charleston family – but says he intends to keep it as a quiet family retreat.

Dr. Christopher Swain of Charleston bought the small island, mostly known as “Ghost Island’’ but also called “Tomb Island’’ – for $130,000 two years ago.

Since then, he has built a dock, cleared off decades of debris left by day-trippers and others, and begun clearing out the undergrowth, the first step in making it a more pleasant place to visit. He also took down a swing and installed a solar-powered security system.

Nestled in an S-shaped bend just south of Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site, the island also has a new dock and its West Ashley neighbors have looked on with a curious eye.

Donna Jacobs, a West Ashley historian and author, said some residents of nearby Maryville objected to the dock permit, but it was granted anyway.

“The island does have people talking because it’s a historic gem in St. Andrews Parish, and for a long time it just sat there undisturbed,’’ she said. “Now it’s been disturbed, and we have no way of knowing for what purpose because it’s privately owned. But people have questions.’’

Swain said he knows there once was a mausoleum on the island, and some remnants of it still are visible on the ground. The island also has two empty tombs.

Charlie Smith, a West Ashley real estate figure, is among those who has wondered whether the island might be used for more than family trips.

“The centuries-old island cemetery, associated with Hillsborough Plantation and the Lining and Hill families, is an important surviving element of the history of Maryville-Ashleyville,’’ he said. “There once was a tomb on the island, but there were many burials in the ground as well. The soil of Ghost Island contains the remains of our West Ashley predecessors. Any recreational use of the island is wrong.’’

But Swain disagreed. “People think there are graves on the island, but there is really no evidence of anything.’’

Michael Trinkley, director of The Chicora Foundation Inc., which does archaeological consulting, has done some cursory research. He said a newspaper article in 1896 talked about a desecrated grave on the island. By 1906, many curiosity seekers were visiting the site, remarking on the large vault and exceptional preservation of the coffins, he said.

But vandalism quickly ratcheted up, and one vault was demolished. The bodies reportedly were removed to another family cemetery in Camden and possibly elsewhere.

“So it was clearly and unarguably a white burial ground in the 18th and 19th centuries,’’ Trinkley said. “Whether there are still burials on the island – or whether there are African American burials – is difficult to determine.’’

Trinkley said if there are still remains on the island, state law would let descendants visit them. He said more research could shed light on what’s there.

Swain said he grew interested in the island around the time he and his wife Debbie supported efforts to revamp The Citadel’s boathouse, a donation the school made public earlier this year.

He said his family likes to go boating “and we thought, `Wouldn’t it be cool if we had somewhere to take the boat to – to have a destination for us?’’’

County property records show the Ghost Island tract at 16.2 acres, but all but a few acres are marsh. It’s in the city and zoned as single-family residential, which hypothetically allows 5 units per acre, Charleston Planning Director Jacob Lindsey said.

“However, this site is not served by utilities (or by a road), so it’s not developable in a conventional sense,’’ Lindsey said. “It would have to be off the grid, so to speak.’’

Swain said he eventually plans to build a cottage for his family’s use, adding that he would want to make it look like it’s been there 100 years. “It’s going to blend in with the scenery,’’ he added. “Hopefully, it won’t even be noticeable.’’

“I think the biggest challenge for us is doing gardening,’’ he said. “We believe in the past there were gardens out there. If they had a tomb out there, or mausoleum, we believe they had garden features out there. We just want to make it that way. For us it’s more of a marathon than a sprint. We’re just going to take our time to make it something that’s attractive and respectful of the property and the history.’’

Swain said he understands some people might prefer looking at the island the way it once was, not the way it looks now, with a new dock.

“I understand all that,’’ he said. “If we were trying to live out there or build apartments out there, it would be quite different, but what we have in mind I think would be something people are pleased with.’’

Photo: View of Ghost Island, now slated for big change