Backman’s Seafood works to repair damage from Hurricane Matthew & weekend storm

Backman's dock, before and after Hurricane Matthew.
Backman’s dock, before and after Hurricane Matthew.

By Thomas Ambrose Bierce

Just a few months ago, Hurricane Matthew led to the damage of the dock at Backman’s Seafood.

This past weekend the large storm that swept through added more damage when a 40′ shipping container that was converted into a cooler was thrown 100 feet from where it sat on the concrete pad.

Either a tornado or a downburst caused the new damage.

A fundraiser was started just last week to help the Backman’s make repairs on the dock. Now there’s new damage and a big mess to clean up.

The Folly Boat used to be a Backman boat

The image of the Folly Boat is one that locals, transplants and tourists alike all take notice of when heading to Folly Beach. The story of how it got there and why it stayed is much less well known. This old work boat broke loose from the Backman’s dock during hurricane Hugo in 1989.

At that time the boat could have been refloated, towed back to the dock and put back into service. Instead, a strange thing happened. Before the Backman’s had mobilized after the storm to reclaim their vessel it had already been painted several times to spread community messages, memorials and announcements.

This was essentially the first social media! The Backman’s recognized its importance, and the decision was made for the boat to stay in place where it has been painted thousands of times since.

Underneath the structure at the end of the dock, showing the shift of the dock pilings. Photo by Thomas Ambrose Bierce.
Underneath the structure at the end of the dock, showing the shift of the dock pilings. Photo by Thomas Ambrose Bierce.
The damage of the economy

After decades of providing great seafood and jobs to the community, the Backman’s and many other shrimpers began to feel the pressure of keeping up their fleet. The rising cost of fuel and the imported shrimp that was steadily flooding the market had driven down the price of wild shrimp.

Today their fleet of six shrimp boats is down to one. This is mainly due to the high maintenance required by the old wooden boats which must be hauled out at least every two years if not more to be replanked. For the aforementioned reasons it became increasingly less viable to perform the required maintenance on so many boats.

Shipworms eventually laid to rest four of the family’s fleet right at their dock. The one remaining, the “Backman Enterprise”, was built in 1986 and is made completely of fiberglass.

Backman Enterprise sitting on a sandbar. Photo by Thomas Ambrose Bierce.
Backman Enterprise sitting on a sandbar. Photo by Thomas Ambrose Bierce.
And then came Hurricane Matthew

When driving down Folly road you can still see the Backman Enterprise in the background, but she is no longer tied to the dock. Unfortunately, the strong winds of hurricane Matthew against this large shrimp boat was too much for the dock to handle and serious structural damage was the result.

I became friends with the Backman’s just before the storm when one of them (Captain Dave) brought his sailboat over into the Folly River to help a friend lower wooden masts of his damagesailboat to the deck using his aluminum mast. After Captain Dave’s good deed, his transmission blew on his way back to their dock, so I gave him a tow to where he tied up next to the Enterprise. Dave was on his way to haul his steel hulled sailboat onto land, but the transmission problem made it impossible to do before the storm.

I always admired the uniqueness of the Backman’s commercial waterfront, and I was glad to be helping out a fellow waterman in need. That was the first time I had actually been on the dock and was able to check it out up close. I could see how full of history it was.

After the storm Captain Dave called me to help pull the boats that broke free out of the marsh, and that’s when I saw the damage the storm caused. The dock looked nothing like it did a few days earlier. There was nothing there to tie the big boats back up to.

Captain Dave’s sailboat is fine but the shrimp boat is so big that even at anchor it continues to sit on the bottom at low tide which could eventually cause serious damage to the structure of the vessel.

Damage from a suspected tornado on January 21, 2017. Pictured is a view looking back towards land and Backman's facility. To the right is a 40' long oyster cooler (shipping container) that was tossed 100' across the causeway from its original location which was the concrete pad to the left of the dock. Photo by Thomas Ambrose Bierce.
Damage from a suspected tornado on January 21, 2017. Pictured is a view looking back towards land and Backman’s facility. To the right is a 40′ long oyster cooler (shipping container) that was tossed 100′ across the causeway from its original location which was the concrete pad to the left of the dock.  Photo by Thomas Ambrose Bierce.
Getting to the work of repairs and preserving history

Seeing the tattered dock after the storm made me sad to think that we would lose this staple of the community and all the rich history that goes along with it. When I asked Sammy, Dave’s brother, what the plan for Enterprise was, he said that he wanted to sell it. Then he said “or turn it into a museum.”

I knew right then that he had a desire to preserve this history but not necessarily the means to do so. The building across the street from Backman’s on the corner of Old Sol Legare Road is the Farmers’ Lodge Museum and Cultural Center,  a circa 1915 building that the Town of James Island pitched in to restore and have added to the National register of Historic Places in 2007.

Backman’s Seafood began providing local fresh seafood at the current location in 1961 during the heyday of the shrimping and oyster industry. These unique buildings have serviced that industry until recent events put them out of service.

One of the waterfront buildings at Backman's with back railing damaged by Saturday's tornado. Photo by Thomas Ambrose Bierce.
One of the waterfront buildings at Backman’s with back railing damaged by Saturday’s tornado. Photo by Thomas Ambrose Bierce.

I knew that if I explained to people that they might lose a part of history that they would care and pitch in again to help preserve this working waterfront and allow it to adapt and continue functioning in a sustainable way as something everyone can enjoy.

I hadn’t known Sammy and Dave very long but I didn’t think they were the type to ask the community directly for help. Instead myself along with several other close friends of the family and their churches have helped create a GoFundMe page for people who want to help preserve this important part of Lowcountry history and culture for this humble and deserving family.

Bringing it full circle: how you can help with this project

As I mentioned earlier, the Folly Boat has served as a message board for the community for nearly 30 years, well before Facebook and GoFundMe. Today we’re bringing it full circle and asking: if you don’t have any materials (big anchors to lend, lumber, hardware etc.) please donate time to volunteer, donate to fund this project and share this cause with your friends and family.

Photo of the aftermath of Saturday's tornado, taken from land. Photo by Thomas Ambrose Bierce.
Photo of the aftermath of Saturday’s tornado, taken from land. Photo by Thomas Ambrose Bierce.

We have no idea how much money is going to be needed but the first goal is to build two dolphins (several pilings right next to each other bound together with steel cable) to tie the shrimp boat back up and keep it in one place.

The next step would be to clear debris and preserve the shrimp house at the end of the dock while rebuilding the large section of face dock that was ripped off during the storm. If this structure gives way it’s gone for good because it cannot be re-permitted.

As I mentioned earlier there are four wrecks around the dock and we would like to raise enough money to hire a company to bring in a barge for their removal and disposal. And, of course, now there is new damage that will need to be taken care of, and we will work on that as well.

We appreciate any and all help that the community can give us as we work to preserve an important landmark representing one of the last working waterfront’s in Charleston.

Thomas Ambrose Bierce is a Guest Writer for the Bugle. He works as a local oyster farmer and can be reached at tabierce@gmail.com.

To see full size photos, click on image below to view photo gallery.

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