As you drive out of downtown Charlotte on South Tryon Street, you eventually come to the Buster Boyd Bridge across the Catawba River, which carries you into South Carolina and the community of Lake Wylie.
Many of us call the area “the Island of Lake Wylie,” because of the slower pace of life and abundance of access to the lake itself. Adding to the feeling is a quirk in the road system. Just like a real island, every road out of the Lake Wylie community crosses water.
The bridge is named for William Monroe “Buster” Boyd, a Mecklenburg County politician who lobbied for the first bridge, which was built in 1923, and donated land on the North Carolina side for the construction.
The history of the Lake Wylie community is mostly that of other river-side enclaves – small cottages for weekend getaways and at least one employee recreation area, operated by the Esso (now Exxon) corporation, which had a credit card processing facility in Charlotte.
There were, however, some exceptions. William Henry Belk, the department store magnate, had a large summer home on the South Carolina side of the lake (he enclosed part of the lake with sea walls to make a duck pond). The facility later became the Commodore Yacht Club and now is a private residence again.
In 1936, Curtis Johnson, then-owner of the Charlotte Observer, built the Fresh Air Camp just west of the Buster Boyd Bridge. According to legend, Johnson had grown fond of a shoeshine boy and sent him away to a camp. The positive change in the boy gave Johnson the idea build a camp where inner city kids could go for fresh air and recreation.
When he turned the camp over to the YMCA, he stipulated it had to provide free access to inner city children who otherwise wouldn’t have a camping experience.
Camp Thunderbird, as it is now known, has grown into a high-dollar ($1,780 for a two-week session) experience with horseback riding, waterskiing, sailing, kayaking and other sports, but still provides “camperships” to more than 200 children each summer.
The camp shares an entrance with River Hills Plantation, the Charlotte area’s first guarded, gated community. It was developed by the same people who built Sea Pines Plantation on Hilton Head, and the two developments have similar features. The only golf course in the Lake Wylie community is behind its gates, as are a country club, a marina and a small office building with views of the lake.
For awhile, the community had sort of a split personality. Because South Carolina allowed beer and wine sales 24 hours a day while North Carolina cut them off at 1 a.m., there were several after-hours clubs in the community that didn’t open until midnight. Those are gone, but we have the Rainbow Inn, which bills itself as “S.C.’s only LGBT bar.”
Along with the bars, you’ll find an amazing number of churches, some with their own buildings, some that meet in the gymnasiums of the two schools, and one that meets at the boat landing just east of the bridge.
The fact that a lesbian/gay/bisexual/transsexual bar and several ultra-conservative churches exist in the same small community is an example of the island mentality of live-and-let-live. It is an outgrowth of the laid-back lifestyle that has attracted people to the area since the lake was impounded more than 100 years ago.
While an influx of new subdivisions has turned the area into a suburb of Charlotte, it is still common for people to hang signs on their decks and docks proclaiming “Living on Island Time.”
Kenneth is a former reporter and editor at the Observer.
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