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It happened in Horry: The worst year ever |

Editor’s note: Roy Talbert is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Coastal Carolina University.

Three decades after opening, Myrtle Beach entered its first major boom. Despite the Great Depression, the 1930s were good to us. We had a solid tourism base that stretched to Florence and up into North Carolina.

The hallmark image of Myrtle Beach, the Ocean Forest Hotel, opened in 1930. We had golfing and golf tournaments at the new, and now legendary, Pine Lakes.

In 1938, another major attraction appeared—horse racing at the Washington Park track. That year’s Fourth of July saw nearly 70,000 visitors.

We didn’t have accommodations for that many. With every “room and cot” taken, people stayed in Conway and Georgetown. We also saw our first traffic jams, a sure sign of success!

That weekend of the Fourth, 1938, made us close to a million dollars.

A similarly successful season in 1939 seemed assured. But, it wasn’t. The crowds didn’t come. There was no hurricane, no gas shortage, nor anything we did wrong. We were the victim of old-time social media, a false rumor that went viral by word of mouth. People were afraid to come to the beach.

Blind fear kept the tourists away, fear of the dread disease of that time: polio, infantile paralysis. People remembered the 1916 epidemic that killed 27% of patients, with most others crippled for life. They also knew that polio put the president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a wheelchair.

There was no polio in Horry County. Nevertheless, we had no tourists, and all we could do was try to explain. Both the county health officer and the head of the state department of health declared us “free of danger.”

The influential regional newspaper, The Charlotte Observer, came to our defense, blaming the Myrtle Beach disaster on “mass fright.” Even though there had been no polio cases at all that year, “patronage has declined to a staggering extent at Myrtle Beach.”