Atalaya Ghost Tour offers spooky castle as backdrop for tantalizing tales
Spooky legends and ghost stories on South Carolina’s Hammock Coast are well known by many locals, but they may be new for some visitors to the area.
These tantalizing tales include the Gray Man, a misty figure on the beach who warns of impending hurricanes; Alice Flagg, a young girl who searches for her lost engagement ring long after her death; Crab Boy, who drowned in the marsh while attempting to catch a stone crab bare-handed; and the Hag, who unravels her skin to fly through the night and hex those who lie awake.
For people seeking an eerie evening, Huntington Beach State Park hosts a series of ghost tours at Atalaya, the historic, Moorish-style home that some believe resembles a castle, the perfect spooky location for people to hear these stories. Tours, which are free with park admission, are from 8:30-9:30 p.m. on Fridays through the end of August 2022. They will start up again in June 2023. The home was once occupied by Archer and Anna Huntington, the namesakes of the state park and founders of nearby Brookgreen Gardens.
Another opportunity to hear these and other stories at Atayala is the upcoming Atalaya Sleepover set for Nov. 12 and 13, 2022. It will be a night of fun-filled adventure including s’mores and ghost stories by the campfire, a house tour, a scavenger hunt, a nighttime beach walk, morning wildlife walk and much more. Dinner and continental breakfast are also included at $50 for adults and $30 for children ages 6-15.
Interpretive Park Ranger Mike Walker, who leads the Atalaya Ghost Tour, the Atalaya Sleepover and other events at the park, said he enjoys sharing these tales passed down through the generations on the Hammock Coast, especially at Atalaya, which is a Spanish term meaning Watchtower.
“Commonly referred to as the Castle by locals, Atalaya looks like it should be haunted,” he said, “with its labyrinth-like maze of corridors, ornate iron grill work on the windows, vine-covered walls, and a watchtower looming over it all.”
Archer Huntington, who was the heir to a fortune his father made by being one of the inventors of the Transcontinental Railroad that united the East Coast and West Coast of the United States. He met Anna later in life when she was a world-famous sculptor, who grew up in a family that prized the outdoors, nature, and art.
Anna’s father was a paleontologist who studied Ice Age mammals like woolly mammoths, mastodons, and giant ground sloths. Her mother was a watercolor painter.
The Huntingtons came to the South Carolina coast because Anna was diagnosed with Tuberculosis and they wanted to build a winter home. While in this area, they came upon an ad for a hunting club built on the remnants of four former rice plantations.
“What is east of Highway 17 is now Huntington Beach State Park and west of Highway 17 is Brookgreen Gardens, one of the largest sculpture gardens in the entire world,” Walker said. “And out in the Waccamaw River and beyond that is now the Waccamaw Wildlife Refuge.”
Walker said Atalaya resembles a coastal fortress, built hundreds of years ago, but its “watchtower” actually served as a water tower, supplying water to the rooms of the castle. He said it also had another purpose originally: harboring bats to combat mosquitos.
“The Huntingtons hit on a more practical way of avoiding mosquitos and that was living here only in the wintertime,” Walker said. “So, it was never much of an issue.”
Walker is quick to mention that Atalaya, itself, is not haunted. He explained that the two main requirements of a ghost story — someone dying and someone having unfinished business — just never happened at Atalaya.
“I would love to tell you how crazy-haunted Atalaya is, but it is not,” Walker said. “You just don’t have the makings of a good ghost story here.”
He said that no one ever died at Atalaya and that the Huntingtons had no unfinished business since they were very wealthy and had anything their hearts desired.
“They were very well connected, and they both lived long lives,” Walker said. “There is almost nothing that the Huntingtons wanted to do that they didn’t get a chance to do.”
Even though it is not haunted, Walker said Atalaya is the perfect place to hear spooky tales.
“These tales are a form of edutainment; entertaining while slipping in some education,” he said. “Without even realizing it, visitors learn about tides and hurricanes, where seafood really comes from, and much more about our coastal way of life.”
Huntington Beach State Park Manager Brenda Magers said that the combination of Walker and the backdrop of Atalaya make this a worthwhile tour.
“Atalaya is a unique and eclectic location,” she said. “Once inside, the exposed brick, dark setting and historic feel blend to set the perfect stage for a ghost story.”
She said a good storyteller will draw the audience in with “relatable characters, a good back story, and a side of heart break.”
“Mike is able to spin a tale in a way that draws you in,” Magers said. “However, don’t get too comfortable. He knows just when to land an emphatic punch line to make you jump.”
Reactions about the tour
Tour-goers who have experienced Walker’s spine-tingling way of sharing these stories say his voice is what makes all the difference.
Hailey Johnson from Cincinnati, Ohio, was with a group of friends on the tour. She said she was amazed how Walker spins these local legends.
“He has a way of projecting his voice and grabbing your attention,” she said. “He can also make you feel like you are there with the characters in those stories.”
Johnson added that Atalaya is a great location to hear ghost stories and scary tales.
“It is so spooky in the hallways and rooms of the castle at night,” she said. “That really added to the suspense and thrill of these stories.”
Jerry Perkins was with his wife, Nicole, and their children, Samantha, 17, and James, 11.
“I thought it was great,” Perkins said. “We came down last week to see Atalaya, and we thought we would come back for this tour.”
Nicole Perkins was also impressed.
“I enjoyed hearing some history about everything back here in the park,” she said. “We did the daytime tour with them, so this is actually the first time seeing it at night. This is a neat place.”
Samantha and James Perkins agreed.
“(Mike Walker) is a master storyteller,” Samantha said. “I especially liked the story about the Grey Man because it was so mysterious.”
James added, “The stories were awesome, and they were even better the way (Mike Walker) told them.”
Here are some of the highlights of the four spooky tales:
- Although we don’t know his name, it is believed that the Grayman was the son of one of the many rice planters on the Waccamaw Neck in the colonial days.
- It was standard for those wealthy families to send their sons overseas to go to college since there were no colleges here yet.
- It is believed that he grew up and went overseas for his education, but since he fell in love before he left, he planned to be married as soon as he came back from college.
- When it was time for him to return, he met a friend at the port who loaned him his spare horse and somewhere along the way back to what is now Pawleys Island and Murrells Inlet, he had a fatal accident.
- His fiancé was so upset, she spent weeks in her room and eventually came out saying that she had a dream that her love had returned and warned her of an impending storm and they had to leave the area right away.
- Her family left and when a hurricane came through, many houses were destroyed, but their house stood as they left it.
- Ever since then, there have been reports before every major hurricane that affected this area the Grayman has warned people, and those people have been spared.
- The Flagg family was once the wealthiest family in Murrells Inlet. Saddly, most of the family would be wiped out by a hurricane in 1893.
- Two Flagg children, Allard and Alice, lost their father at a very early age, a victim of Yellow Fever (carried by mosquitoes)
- Dr. Allard Flagg took it upon himself to be a surrogate for his younger sister, Alice.
- Allard wanted Alice to wed the wealthiest husband and live on the biggest estate with the largest house.
- Young Alice, however, had totally different ideas. While taking her daily horseback rides on the beach, she met a young man who was a lumberman, someone who collects sap from pine trees to make turpentine and rosin to seal the wood boards of ships.
- Over time, they fell in love and the young man asked Alice for her hand in marriage. He gave her a simple engagement ring.
- She didn’t want her brother to see the ring on her finger, so she put it on a chain and wore it around her neck.
- When she told her brother about the engagement, he was furious and although she told him she would break it off, she did not.
- Alice contracted yellow fever and as her caretaker, Allard found the ring still around her neck and threw it in the marsh.
- Her dying words were, “I want my ring!” and legend has it that some people who have visited Alice’s grave have lost their rings.
- This legend is based on a true story that happened in Murrells Inlet about 100 years ago, before there were restaurants there.
- A boy only known as Brian had the job of bringing his family something from the marsh for dinner.
- Out of all the seafood delicacies to be had in the salt marsh –clams, oysters, shrimp, flounder, and crabs — there was one that was Brian’s favorite above all else — the claws of the stone crab.
- The most popular way to catch stone crabs was on a new moon at low tide, the lowest of the low tides, when the burrows of stone crabs would be uncovered.
- While most people would use a long stick to tease the crab until it grabbed it with its claw, Brian had a special way to harvest stone crabs – with his bare hands.
- On one occasion when he was on the hunt for stone crabs, kneeling down in the pluff mud and attempting to snatch the crab before it could turn around and get his hand with its huge claw, something went terribly wrong.
- Brian was a little slower than he needed to be and the crab grabbed his hand and would not let go. With the tide coming in fast, Brian tried to pull his hand free, but couldn’t. His last screamed words were, “Help me!” as his head went under water.
- If you were to see a hag during daylight hours, it would look just like you or me. During daylight hours the hag walks this world wearing the skin of a human being.
- But once the sun goes down and the world goes dark, they peal off that skin and go flying about in the night air seeking to hex folks lying awake all night.
- People who have experienced a hag say the only way to get rid of one is to put salt into its skin when it is flying through the night without it.
- Some ways to avoid hags are said to include hanging a broom on the wall, or leaving a colender, a sifter, a toothbrush, or a hairbrush. A hag cannot pass these items without counting every bristle or hole on these items. Another way is to face your shoes in opposite direction by the bed, so the hag will not know which way you might have gone.
South Carolina’s Hammock Coast is one of the Palmetto State’s top tourist destinations. Generations of visitors have made Georgetown County their preferred vacation spot. Buoyed by its large selection of vacation rental condos and homes and wide-open, pristine beaches, Hammock Coast beaches routinely make the best-of lists from various media outlets.
In addition to the beaches, people are drawn to the Hammock Coast for its nature-centric pastimes such as fishing, boating, kayaking and more. Historic sites, such as Hopsewee Planation, the Kaminski House, Brookgreen Gardens and Atalaya Castle at Huntington Beach State Park, are also popular must-do activities for visitors of all ages.
For more information about Huntington Beach State Park and Atalaya, click here. To attend a ghost tour at Atalaya, call the park at 843-235-8755.
To register for the Atalaya Sleepover, e-mail Interpretive Park Ranger Mike Walker at: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 843-235-8755. A limited supply of tents and sleeping pads are available to borrow.
Other Hammock Coast ghost tours
Murrells Inlet has a rich and colorful past. Learn about the local history, area ghosts, and legends of the Seafood Capital of South Carolina on Miss Chris’ Inlet Walking Tour along the Marsh Walk. The one-hour tour begins at 6 p.m. at Lazy Gator on U.S. Highway 17 Business in Murrells Inlet from early March-November, weather permitting.
Call or text to 843-655-4470 to reserve your spot. The tour is $15 per person (cash only). Children aged 8 and under are free. For more information, visit the Miss Chris’ Inlet Walking Tour Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/marshwalkpiratelady.
Elizabeth Huntsinger and sometimes her husband, Lee, lead Ghosts of Georgetown Lantern Tours each Friday – and other days, by appointment. Donning traditional pirate costumes or Civil War uniforms, tour guides bring a touch of whimsy and history to their phantasmic tours.
Huntsinger, the author of three books about the ghosts and legends of Georgetown, spark tour-goers’ imaginations on visits to locations throughout the city. One of her favorites is the Winyah Indigo Society Hall on Screven Street. Society members enjoyed the hall only briefly before it was used as a hospital during the Civil War, and, eerily, it’s been haunted ever since.
This year-round lantern-led walking tour is one to one and-a-half hours, and one to one-and-a-half miles long. Tickets are $20 per adult, ages 13 and up, and $10 for children aged 8-12, cash only. Ghost tours depart Friday evenings at dusk with no less than five adults. Times will vary seasonally.
For more information or reservations, call (843) 543-5777, or visit the website at ghostsofgeorgetown.com. Reservations are required.
Hobcaw Barony (just north of Georgetown)
Are you ready for a spooktacular tale and some Halloween fun? Come to Hobcaw Barony on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022, from 10:30 a.m. to noon to hear of the local superstitions and scary stories, as well as the supernatural occurrences at Hobcaw Barony.
This storytelling program includes visits to Friendfield Village and Bellefield Plantation and will prepare kids of all ages for their own Hammock Coast experiences. This tour is recommended for ages 6 and up; children under 7 must be accompanied by an adult. Participants should wear close-toed shoes and dress for the weather and the possibility of biting insects. Reservations, which are $15 per adult, $10 per child, age 13 and below, are required.
For more information or tickets, call 843-546-4623, or visit the website at hobcawbarony.org.
By Clayton Stairs / tourism manager for the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce and South Carolina’s Hammock Coast®