Remebering former mayor, Beaufort legend, Henry Chambers

9 mins read

Article by Justin Jarrett, Photos by Bob Sofaly

It seems everyone in Beaufort knew Henry Chambers.

Maybe they knew him as the former mayor, perhaps as their one-time Boy Scout leader, or, for those of a certain age, as a state champion athlete.

Even the newcomers knew his name, which graces the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park that has become the center of activity in downtown Beaufort.

Chambers died late Saturday, July 14, at the age of 89 after years of declining health. He was nine days shy of his 90th birthday. A public service at Waterfront Park is being planned for next week, but the details have not been finalized.

Few people were more universally beloved in Beaufort than Chambers, a sixth-generation Beaufort County resident who was born on Port Republic Street on July 23, 1928, and proceeded to do Beaufort proud for much of the following 90 years.

He played on state championship football and basketball teams before graduating from Beaufort High School in 1945 and heading off to Clemson University to study civil engineering. 

After serving in the U.S. Army, Chambers returned home to Beaufort and quickly became a civic leader, engaging in community service through Sertoma, Rotary, and the Boy Scouts, among other organizations. He was elected mayor in 1969 and set about making progressive changes that forever altered the city’s history. 

“He really almost started a renaissance of a sleepy town that was falling apart,” said current Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling, who knew Chambers since childhood.

While the development of Waterfront Park was his most celebrated achievement, and one that turned around a crumbling downtown, the less exciting moves Chambers made had just as much to do with the town’s rebirth. 

During his 20 years as mayor, Chambers secured more than $50 million in funding for road, water, and sewer improvements and the expansion and revival of the historic district. 

“When he became mayor, there were many streets even in downtown that had not been paved,” Keyserling said. “He annexed Mossy Oaks to allow the city to grow, and he brought sewer to Beaufort, which prevented us from having to put our waste into the Beaufort River.”

Henry Chambers was more than a mayor

By Billy Keyserling, Mayor, City of Beaufort

I was sad when Bill Chambers called to tell me his dad, Henry Chambers, the iconic long-serving mayor of Beaufort, passed away in the night Saturday.

I write this not only as a mayor who learned from Henry, but as one of many Boy Scouts Henry led in Troop 1; a former summer employee who worked under the hot sun at Henry’s Burton Block Company casting the sandstone frieze facade at the USCB Historic campus; through Sertoma when Henry, with his friend Al Wilhelm, brought youth boxing, a program that created the opportunity for me to become Beaufort’s heavyweight champion at age 9.

Among many memories, I remember the day I was the young crew member on Chambers’ sailboat who was largely responsible for it capsizing as we crossed the starting line at one of Beaufort’s signature sailing regattas. My competitive skipper was not happy.

Another personal attachment was that my grandfather mentored Henry into and through Clemson, and afterwards and my dad was the family doctor.

For those of you who never knew Henry Chambers personally or from afar, you missed a very important period in our city’s history that he pioneered. 

Henry brought water and sewer to most of the city when previous to that our waste went into the river; he brought the Mossy Oaks neighborhood into the city, making room to grow; he paved dirt roads throughout the city and installed many other improvements which today we take for granted, but which made Beaufort more sustainable. That is to say that Mayor Chambers laid much of the groundwork for today’s Beaufort. 

Henry leveraged every conceivable tool and available city penny while cultivating critical connections to achieve state and federal funding to grow the hometown that he loved and cared for like it was a member of his family or Clemson University, for whom he was a lifelong advocate. 

Furthermore Henry used a job-creating federal grant to encourage Dataw Island to be developed. The Dataw money was a loan that was paid back and later invested in our city. New jobs, a world-class retirement community, and the money was ultimately invested in Beaufort.

You’ll note that among many accomplishments I didn’t list was Henry’s vision for the magnificent waterfront park – ambitious and controversial at the time. That bold move accomplished more than an unmatched regional asset, as it won praise not only from those in his beloved hometown but inspired other mayors and developers to harness open space and waterfront vistas to enhance and grow communities.

Today it may be difficult to imagine, but before the park and the enthusiastic mood it brought to a sleepy city whose storefronts were boarded up, our once vibrant downtown was crumbling with the times. When major retailers left downtown, Henry rescued retail opportunities for Beaufortonians by making way for them to stay local in nearby locations.

Furthermore he launched Beaufort into national historic landmark status and established the Main Street program in concert with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

While we did not always agree, we batted ideas back and forth because we shared the importance of vision, the value of common sense problem-solving and staying focused.

Fortunately city government is driven by love of place, business acumen, and common sense. Henry was a trusted advisor. Whether or not we agreed to particulars, he was always there for the people of Beaufort.

Thanks for jump-starting a dying city, Henry. You established opportunities for generations to follow by capitalizing and growing the fruits of your having brought a new day to Beaufort.

My memories and heartfelt appreciation for Henry Chambers could go on for pages, but Henry had so many friends and traveled so many roads, in the coming days I know hearts will be pouring out more and more about this respected visionary and savvy leader for what he gave to this hometown that Henry and our residents love so very much.

While I may have many regrets, the one currently in mind is that Henry will not see the monument that is currently in production to be installed in the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park. May it serve as an eternal reminder of his vision, tenacity, and love of Beaufort.

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