Digest>Archives> October 2009

Hunting Island Light Station Celebrates 150th

By Bruce Doneff


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South Carolina's Hunting Island Lighthouse ...

Lighthouses by their very intent and purpose have stories rich with drama and historic significance. However, few if any are more colorful than the history of the lighthouse at Hunting Island State Park outside of Beaufort, South Carolina.

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The logo of the 150th Hunting Island Light ...

The first of ten planned by the US Congress for the South Carolina coast, the original 95-foot brick structure was completed in July, 1859. Situated on the north point of the wild and isolated maritime forested island, it replaced a lightship that marked the dangerous shoals, sandbars and reefs of St. Helena Sound, halfway between Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA.

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This view from the air shows just how magnificent ...

For almost two years the lighthouse and its first keeper, Anton Johnson, went about their respective duties with no fanfare and little recognition. All that changed with the beginning of the Civil War in April, 1861, when Confederate forces fired upon Fort Sumter in Charleston some 85 miles up the coast. The Union Army quickly occupied the city of Beaufort and virtually all of the state of South Carolina. Retreating Confederate soldiers blew up the new lighthouse to hinder the approach of the Union fleet before the Battle of Port Royal and to insure that “… in no case could it ever serve against the state.” The rubble from the original lighthouse now rests at the bottom of the ocean almost two miles from the northern point of today's shoreline.

Once again a lightship was posted off the northern tip of Hunting Island until construction of a new lighthouse was begun in 1873. Because of the fear of malaria during the summer months, work proceeded only in the winter and was completed in 1875. The new lighthouse had been relocated one-quarter mile inland from the original one. Some said it was too far from the shore, but the ocean had already claimed the site of the old lighthouse and the continuing erosion of the beach soon laid those criticisms to rest.

By 1887, the tidal waves had crept to within 150 feet of the tower and 60 feet of the keeper's house. In 1889, the lighthouse was disassembled and moved to it's present day location of one mile south and one and one-quarter miles inland from the previous site. The 12-room house, which accommodated a head keeper, two assistant keepers and all their families, was also moved.

The possibility of relocation had been considered in the design of the new lighthouse. Manufactured by Phoenix Iron Works of Philadelphia, PA, the shell was composed of curved, cast iron panels weighing roughly 1,200 pounds each. All of the 160 panels were designed to be interchangeable in any location on the tower. It took four-months to move, and using 36 steel anchor bolts six feet long, the tower was secured to its eight-foot-thick concrete foundation. The interior of the lighthouse was lined with a solid wall of brick linked to iron flanges on the assembled shell. Cast iron decks and a spiral staircase completed the structure.

The new lighthouse stood 133 feet high with a focal plane of 122 feet above mean high tide. Its light, which was also moved, was a Second Order Fresnel visible for 18 miles at sea. The expanded lighthouse complex contained the keeper's house, a brick oil storage building, several frame storage buildings and two cisterns for drinking water. The island was reachable only by boat through the tidal creeks, so a 3,000-foot tram railroad was built from a wharf on Johnson Creek to the compound for the transportation of oil, materials and supplies.

The families lived in isolation and looked forward to the arrival of the supply boats for news of the mainland, books and newspapers to read, and their mail. Life was difficult on the semi-tropical barrier island with the heat, humidity and a variety of stinging insects, and they were constantly on guard for snakes and alligators. During hurricane season the lashing winds and driving waves swept more and more of the island out to sea. On occasion they also brought unexpected company in the form of shipwreck victims taking shelter with the island's inhabitants inside the lighthouse.

Hunting Island Lighthouse served until 1933, when it was decommissioned and replaced with a lighted whistle buoy. The state acquired the island from Beaufort County in 1938 and converted it to a state park. During this period the keeper's house was used to house Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers who were building a bridge between the island and St. Helena Island and constructing buildings for the park facility. The story goes that during a card game one night a lantern got knocked over and the house burned to the ground.

The lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. According to one of the areas most noted historians, the Hunting Island Lighthouse is the greatest surviving artifact of Beaufort County's “maritime golden age” between 1866 and 1912. In recognition of its historic value, several archeological digs have taken place over the years. The house's foundation was uncovered in 1995 and capped with brick to reveal its outline.

The lighthouse now serves as a private aid to navigation (PATON) and is the only historic lighthouse in the state open to the public. Park visitors can climb its 175 stairs for a breathtaking view of the ocean and beach, the vast salt marsh, and the park's rare maritime forest. However, the lighthouse complex is now much closer to the water's edge than it used to be. Extreme erosion over the past 110 years has brought the ocean's tides to within 500 feet of the lighthouse.

Encompassing 5,000 acres, the park is still a secluded barrier island offering a rich mix of natural beauty and family activities for the more than 1.2 million visitors each year. It features four miles of beach, a campground and cabin rentals, a visitor's center and nature center classroom, a 1,120-foot fishing pier, a 1,300-foot marsh boardwalk and eight miles of hiking and biking trails.

This year marks the 150th Anniversary of the Hunting Island Lighthouse and the park will host a celebration on October 17 and 18. Lighthouse enthusiasts will join with local and state attendees for a jam-packed, fun-filled weekend of family-friendly events. For details go to the website listed below.

Assisting the park with the celebration is the Friends of Hunting Island State Park, Inc., a non-profit, all-volunteer support organization. Under the Friends sponsorship a Limited Edition of 300 Hunting Island Lighthouse replicas marking its 150th Anniversary have been produced for collectors of “This Little Light of Mine” miniatures. Each replica is backstamped with the anniversary information in addition to its number in the series. To order this special miniature

at a cost of $27.95 call 843-379-8377, or go to the Friends website at www.friends-of-hunting-island-sc.org to order yours today!

This story appeared in the October 2009 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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