Tales From the Past: Eric Heiden and the Story of Captain Bill

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Photographs of a Myrtle Beach Legend

by Melissa LaScaleia

Every town by the sea has their own local legend, whisperings about a certain someone shrouded in mystery who peaks everyone’s curiosity. And the Insider was happy to know that Myrtle Beach is no exception; we have the story of Captain Bill.

To find out more about him, the Insider contacted Eric Heiden, a local amateur photographer and charter boat captain of sixty years, who has lived in this area his entire life. He managed to capture some rare photos of Captain Bill in the ’70s.

“Captain Bill was never a real captain,” Eric begins. “So his acronym remains a mystery.”

His real name was Bill Hickman and he was a gentle recluse who lived on the beach in Murrells Inlet. He paddled around in a white rowboat, near what used to be the old government pier built during WWII, and is now the boardwalk.

He never had a job or a vocation, but he made a few dollars by operating a bait stand at the end of the pier. When it was cold, he lived in a handmade, one-room shack in the woods.

Bill’s unusual lifestyle is attributed to the loss of his brother, who died tragically and violently in a car accident; after that, Bill retired from the world forever.

“I’ve been interested in photography as a hobby for years,” Eric says. “And I’m always looking for subject matter that is different and eye-catching. I try to notice things that may not be obvious to some. I try to train myself to look at the leaves on the tree, rather than the whole tree.

“One day, I happened to see Captain Bill in the Inlet in his white rowboat, and I jumped at the opportunity to take his picture. When I approached him, he screamed at me to get away from him, as he did everyone, and refused to allow me to take his photo. He wanted his private life, and to be left alone.”

The Coastal Insider
The value of a box of Cuban cigars and a pack of beer? This close up shot of Captain Bill. (Photo Eric Heiden)

Captain Bill wasn’t a bad character, but a lot of people were afraid to approach him for two reasons— his scruffy appearance, which didn’t instill confidence in most; and he wielded a cane, which he would brandish at anyone who tried to take his picture.

Eric, however, undeterred, tried to bargain with him. He told Captain Bill that he wanted to take his picture to give to him and his family. When Captain Bill continued to grumble, Eric asked him what it would take for him to allow him a photo?

“He wanted a box of Cuban cigars (which were very illegal to own, impossible to buy, and if you were caught coming back through customs with them, you could receive a fine in the tens of thousands of dollars range), and a six-pack of beer,” Eric says with a laugh.

Eric was in luck. Synchronistically, he had a friend, Dr. Jim Schuster from Florence, whom he knew had Cuban cigars, and was, remarkably, willing to part with them.

“So I drove to Florence, I got the cigars and the beer, and then I went back,” says Eric. “And when I did, he looked at me with delight. And so, it was a deal. I just started shooting up.

“I gave a photograph to my friend Russell Vereen, who owns Russell’s Seafood Grill in Murrells Inlet, who was a friend to Captain Bill. There’s also a photograph of him at Pawley’s Island Raw Bar, that someone bought.”

And now, for the first time, you can see the full exhibit of these photos at the Seacoast Artist Gallery in the Market Common, through the end of March.

Reach Eric Heiden via Facebook @Heidenseek Charters. Take a chartered fishing boat and hear the story in person.  

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Seacoast Artist Gallery, 3032 Nevers Street, Myrtle Beach, SC 29577.

Open M-Sa 10am-6pm, Su 12pm-6pm.

843-232-7009

www.seacoastartistsguild.com.

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