James Island often gets overlooked.
Wedged between more famous islands (and, let’s face it, Charleston itself), visitors ignore James Island.
Or, at most, it’s treated as a throughway from downtown Charleston to Folly Beach.
But James Island is a welcoming place that warrants a bit more time than most allow.
Read more: James Island SC: Charm, Cuisine, and Concerts
What is James Island known for?
James Island in South Carolina is a stunning, distinct island with a fascinating past. Surrounded by Charleston Harbor and the meandering Stono and Folly Rivers, James Island provides picturesque marsh views. The other thing this writer associates with James Island are the majestic live oak trees sprawling across the island.
It, like my home state, is also famous for what it’s between. In this case:
- Downtown Charleston
So, it’s only 15 minutes to either the beach or the thrills of the city from most spots on the island.
Which is definitely a plus.
History of James Island SC
James Island is often overlooked for its more illustrious neighboring peninsulas and sea islands.
After all, for much of its history, James Island has been a semi-rural area.
But Charleston’s growth and urbanization have had an impact on this island in recent decades.
And yes, Charleston has played James Island rather dirty. All to gain more territory (and a larger tax base).
Revolutionary and Civil War
Tadeusz Kociuszko, a colonel in the Continental Army, led the last known armed action of the Revolutionary War against the British. The attack happened on November 14, 1782, on James Island. The Continental Congress later named him Brigadier General for his contributions in defending Charlestowne, including:
- His outstanding support of General Gates at the Battle of Saratoga
- And his brilliant work supporting General Greene in defending the South Region Army from Cornwallis forces. It ultimately severely weakening the British under Cornwallis
James Island was also the site of the Battle of Secessionville during the American Civil War. There, Confederate troops defeated the Union’s only attempt to capture Charleston by land.
Modern history of James Island
The recent history of James Island has been a story of locals trying to prevent the near-constant expansion of Charleston. But most efforts end with the City of Charleston blocking attempts to avoid absorption.
Since the early ’90s, James Island residents have attempted to incorporate into their own separate town.
And almost every time, the City of Charleston swatted down their efforts. And drew a bit more of the island’s territory into the city’s fold with each legal battle.
But the fourth time was the charm, and the courts finally stopped forcing the town to shut down. And the rump of James Island that Charleston hadn’t absorbed has been a separate town since 2012.
Though Charleston continues its project of absorbing the rest of James Island, even if it has to do so one property at a time.
Top things to do in James Island SC
James Island has more than a few hidden secrets. The type that need a bit of digging to find and appreciate them.
You’ll find more than a few historic sites sprinkled across James Island.
Riverland Terrace, an early-twentieth-century neighborhood, has 800 homes. The neighborhood is popular for its spacious lots and architectural character. Wappoo Hall and then Riverland Plantation were the original plantation names for the area. Only white (non-Jewish) residents were permitted to buy lots and houses in this affluent commuter suburb. Lots had a $4,000 minimum construction cost, which was no small sum at the time.
Original residents included C. Bissell Jenkins, as well as doctors, attorneys, and business owners. The neighborhood had modern amenities such as:
- Public water
- And telephones
As well as a variety of wooden and brick or stucco-sided homes in a variety of architectural styles.
Today, it’s home to:
- The Terrace Theater, a vintage movie theater for both mainstream and independent films, with beer and wine concessions.
- The Pour House, a no-frills concert hall and tavern to watch touring bands perform live.
- The Charleston municipal golf course, which was built after 1900, making it the oldest course here. The 18-hole course features six sets of tees and a few picturesque holes built within sight of James Island’s famous marshlands.
By the way, members of the Charleston Jewish community founded the Windermere neighborhood in West Ashley. Riverland Terrace and other suburban communities were closed to them in the mid-19th century. And unlike other segregated communities at the time, they had the resources to do something about it.
And in case you’re wondering: Riverland Terrace is on the Charleston-owned side of the island.
McLeod Plantation Historic Site
The McLeod Plantation Historic Site is a must-see destination for history buffs.
And that goes especially for visitors interested in African American history.
The plantation offers guided tours, exhibits, educational programs, and special events. This Charleston plantation offers a unique opportunity to learn about the history of Charleston and the US. All through the lens of one specific location and a large and often overlooked population that built the wealth of Charleston.
And thanks to it being a Charleston County Park, it’s also the least expensive of the Charleston plantations worth visiting.
James Island County Park
- Climbing a wall
- Walking on trails
- And disc golf
There’s also an area for dogs to play without their leashes. The splash zone water park is another major draw for kids. Before entering the park you need to buy admission tickets and there are parking spots available.
The Holiday Festival of Lights
Speaking of which, if you spend any of the holidays in the Lowcountry, be sure to see the Holiday Festival of Lights at James Island County Park.
- The countless multicolored lights
- Fun family events
- Festive shopping
- Delectable food and treats
And much more make this annual event a massive draw for the entire East Coast.
The annual event is open every evening from 5:30 to 10 p.m. from mid-November through the end of December, rain or shine.
Drive through the three miles of gleaming light displays, which include over 750 light shows. Then park your car and explore Santa’s Village and Winter Wonderland on foot.
While Fort Sumter gets all the attention, the Civil War’s opening salvo came from Fort Johnson.
Thanks to its location on the Ashley River’s banks, Fort Johnson was significant from the colonial era onwards. Fort Johnson honors Sir Nathaniel Johnson, who governed Carolina from 1703 to 1709. The South Carolina state flag was raised there for the first time in 1775. The brick magazine, which is 27 feet long and 20 feet wide, was constructed in 1765. Confederate soldiers buried it during the American Civil War, though it was rediscovered in 1931.
Melton Peter Demetre Park
Melton Peter Demetre Park is James Island’s only city-owned waterfront park. It provides some of the most breathtaking views on James Island. The views of Charleston and its surroundings include:
- Patriots Point
- Ravenel Bridge
- Mount Pleasant
- And Fort Johnson
It’s also a popular spot for finding fossilized shark teeth from thousands of years ago.
The former owner of the park donated the land to the City of Charleston around 2007, hence the name, Melton Peter Demetre Park.
But poor guy, it didn’t stick. Locals call it “Sunrise Park,” as it’s a great place to see the sunrise.
- Two sandy waterfront beaches
- A covered picnic area
- A 40-foot floating dock
- A 190-foot fishing pier
- And a short hiking trail
The park is open from 8:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. Be warned: the park’s gates close automatically.
And good luck trying to negotiate that with a robot.
Restaurants on James Island
Many of James Island’s must-try restaurants are in strip malls.
This fact is true of other parts of town, especially West Ashley.
But the unique restaurants, relaxed lunch spots, and date-night hotspots here are not to be missed. They’re ideal for a pit stop on the way to Folly Beach or a foodie adventure in search of a delectable, low-cost meal.
For the Charleston area, at least.
Top picks throughout the island include:
- Maybank Public House offers a wide-ranging menu and inventive burgers with fresh ingredients.
- Pho Saigon is a classic Vietnamese restaurant with nine varieties of soup and a menu of Vietnamese hits.
- Hen and The Goat offers a variety of savory dishes, including pork belly, turkey, pancetta, and brie.
- Mondo’s Italian Restaurant offers hearty baked dishes and a variety of pasta sauces.
- Bohemian Bull offers ground-in-house burgers with hearty combinations, 31 rotating craft beers, plus bourbon and whiskey.
Keep exploring the islands near Charleston, SC, like James Island
Having tried to sell you on spending some time on James Island, the proximity of other islands is still a major selling point.
Some of the nearby ones to check out include:
- Folly Beach, the famous, laidback beach town known as the Edge of America
- Johns Island, home of live oaks draped in Spanish moss, and a more rural feel, for now
And be sure to read the full guide to all the islands near Charleston, South Carolina!