Road Trip along US 17, the Old Coastal Highway

Fans of retro Americana and roadside kitsch will find a treasure trove of down-home sites along the old Coastal Highway, now known as U.S. 17. Before the arrival of the interstate highway system, U.S. 17 was by far the most-traveled route in the region. While now just a shadow of its former self, it is still a vital roadway and contains a lot of interesting, little-known history. Here’s a look at some of the highlights, beginning just north of Charleston and ending at Brunswick, Georgia.

The Arthur J Ravenell Bridge on US Highway 17
Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge: The longest cable-stayed bridge in the western hemisphere joins Mt. Pleasant with Charleston proper. Photo © Ron Cogswell, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.
  • Sweetgrass Baskets: A stretch of U.S. 17 in Mt. Pleasant north of Charleston has been dubbed the “Sweetgrass Basket Makers Highway” in honor of the many wooden stalls along its length hosting local African American artisans selling their homemade sweetgrass baskets, a centuries-old tradition with African roots.
  • Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge: The longest cable-stayed bridge in the western hemisphere joins Mt. Pleasant with Charleston proper. It has a pedestrian and bike lane too.
  • Coburg Cow: This nearly century-old dairy advertisement—a slowly rotating milk cow—was once near pastureland outside city limits. Find it in West Ashley on the portion of U.S. 17 known as the “Savannah Highway,” just west of Charleston.
  • Old Sheldon Church: A very short drive off U.S. 17, the ruins of the Old Sheldon Church—burned by both the British during the Revolution and the Yankees during the Civil War—are huge, stark, and poignant. Going south on U.S. 17, take a right onto Old Sheldon Church Road.
  • Firework Stands: At the intersection of U.S. 17 and I-95 at Hardeeville you’ll find many garish, colorful stores selling enough fireworks to blow you to the moon and back.
  • Keller’s Flea Market: South of Savannah on U.S. 17, at the intersection with Highway 204 (Abercorn Extension), find this classic rambling and friendly Southern flea market. Look for the statue of the hat-wearing cow out front.
  • Midway Church: In the Liberty County town of Midway is this beautiful 1792 church, whose congregation once boasted two of Georgia’s signers of the Declaration of Independence. Don’t miss the historic cemetery across the street.
  • Smallest Church in North America: On the side of the road near South Newport find the miniscule and charming Memory Park Christ Chapel, erected in 1950.
  • Butler Island Plantation Ruins: Just south of Darien, Georgia, on the west side of U.S. 17, find this tall chimney—the only surviving remnant of the Butler plantation. English actress Fanny Kemble, who married a Butler heir, wrote the first influential abolitionist work Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation after witnessing the miserable life of the slaves who worked here. (Strangely, the nearby historical marker makes no mention of this.
  • Brunswick Stewpot: Allegedly the container in which the first batch of Brunswick Stew was cooked up, you can find this cast iron pot in Brunswick, Georgia, at the corner of U.S. 17 and the Torras Causeway to St. Simons Island.

Map of Greater Charleston, SC
Greater Charleston

Jim Morekis

About the Author

Maybe its because he was born in the same hospital as Flannery O'Connor, but there's no doubt that Jim Morekis has writing in his blood. As longtime editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper Connect Savannah, the University of Georgia graduate has written about and experienced pretty much every cultural happening in the area. He credits his love of travel to his mother, Elizabeth, who was John Berendt's travel agent during his stint in Savannah while writing Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

As for the ongoing debate over which city is better, Charleston or Savannah, Jim calls it a tie: Charleston has better long-term planning, but Savannah has to-go cups (allowing anyone to explore the Historic District with a beer or cocktail in hand).

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Prince William parish church ruins in South Carolina. Pinterest graphic.