Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2014-06-23.
As the economy of the United States was expanding in the early 1800s, ports along the Eastern Seaboard, such as Charleston and Savannah, became increasingly important. As early as 1838, a lightship was stationed at the St. Helena Bar, just offshore from St. Helena Sound and Hunting Island.
Hunting Island is a barrier island off the coast of South Carolina, so named as it was a hunting preserve for the upper class in the 1800s to early 1900s. Some of the game hunted on the island consisted of deer, raccoon, waterfowl and other small game.
The first proposal for a lighthouse at Hunting Island would come in 1851 when the United States Lighthouse Establishment recommended a first order lighthouse be established. However, Congress wouldn't approve the lighthouse or funds until August 3, 1854.
The wording of the proposal was as follows:
For a light-house and beacon-light on the north point of Hunting Island, to serve as a sea-coast light, and range for the Swash channel, in place of the light-vessel at present stationed off St. Helena, and for repairing and placing that at Combakee bank, thirty thousand dollars.
By 1859, the lighthouse was completed. A Notice to Mariners was distributed stating:
Hunting Island Light Station
Main Light Revolving, Beacon Light Fixed
Notice is hereby given that at sundown on Friday, the 1st day of July next, the new light-house and beacon on the north point of Hunting Island, S.C., will be lighted, and will be kept burning during the night and every night thereafter from sunset to sunrise.
The main light-house is a conical tower built of reddish gray brick, the upper 25 feet of which will be colored white. The tower is surmounted by a brass lantern.
The illuminating apparatus is a lens of the second order of the system of Fresnel, showing a revolving light of the natural color, the interval between the flashes of which is 30 seconds. The tower is 95 feet high, and the focal plane is 108 feet above the level of the sea. The light should be visible in clear weather a distance of 17 nautical miles.
The Beacon Light, which was to act as a range light for ships heading into St. Helena Sound, was described as the following, in the Notice to Mariners:
The beacon light is an open-work wooden frame, painted white, 32 feet high. The focal plane is 39 feet above the level of the sea. The illuminating apparatus is a lens of the sixth order of Fresnel, showing a fixed light of the natural color.
The coordinates of the lighthouse in the Notice to Mariners, which when translated to decimal, were 32.4083N by 80.4083W. If you look today, the location is underwater due to the constant erosion.
The original Hunting Island Lighthouse was put into service on July 1, 1859, at that time, the St. Helena Light Vessel was discontinued. The new lighthouse would serve only a few years before being taken out of service by Confederate Troops during the Civil War. The second-order Fresnel lens was removed from the lighthouse, crated up, and then transported to Beaufort for safe keeping.
During the Battle of Port Royal, Union forces made their way into Beaufort on the morning of November 11, 1861 and found the town deserted except for several abandoned slaves. The troops ordered the slaves to show them the way to the arsenal, which they complied. Inside the arsenal were the Fresnel lenses for the Hunting Island Lighthouse and Martin's Industry Lightship. The equipment was transported back to the Wabash, eventually to be replaced.
The Fresnel lens would never make it back into the tower. Like the Cape Lookout Lighthouse in North Carolina, retreating Confederate forces, in an effort to keep the tower from falling into Union hands, packed the tower with explosives and detonated it.
Naval crews, when exploring the area, reported no Confederate fortifications were found, but reported the following for the lighthouse: "The lighthouse had been recently blown up, and all the public property carried away."
A popular publication at the time, Edmund Blunt's American Coast Pilot, had the following entry for Hunting Island Lighthouse for the 1863 edition:
"The light-house on Hunting Island has been destroyed. The frame of the beacon light is standing, but it is washed by the sea at high water and will not long remain in position."
After the end of the Civil War, the Lighthouse Board took action to re-establish a lighthouse on Hunting Island. In 1872, a survey was concluded by the district engineer and found two suitable locations. One was north of the St. Helena Sound, on Edisto Island, the other, was on the south side, on Hunting Island.
Although it was not ideal due to erosion, as the government owned no property on Edisto Island, the lighthouse would have to be constructed on Hunting Island. The survey revealed the alarming nature of the erosion on the northern end of the island, with more than half the coastline receding since the last coastal survey which was conducted in 1869.
Due to the volatile nature of Hunting Island, a recommendation was made to construct the lighthouse of iron, so that it could be moved if threatened:
"Owing to the danger to which a light-house site on the north end of Hunting Island will be subjected, and the provisions of the act which make it necessary to select a site on land owned by the Government, it will perhaps be necessary to erect such a structure as could be removed in case of necessity to some other place. An iron light-house would answer this purpose, but an additional appropriation will be necessary to complete the work. An appropriation of $50,000 is accordingly asked, and the light should be of the first instead of the second order, as named in the last appropriation bill."
By 1873, a site was selected more than one mile from the northern end of the island and a half-mile from the beach. The general thought at the time was that a few hundred more feet of shore would erode, and then it would cease leaving the island protected by Harbor Island.
Work on the lighthouse had started in the spring of 1874, but by the end of June, work had stopped due to "the unhealthiness of the climate," which was revealed in later government documents to be malaria. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year had the following entry:
341. Hunting Island light, on the north end of Hunting Island, South Carolina - Operations were commenced in the spring, and were continued until the end of June, when, on account of unhealthiness of the climate, the work was suspended. The tower is of iron, lined with brick, resting upon a concrete foundation 8 feet in thickness. The tower section of the iron is secured to the foundation by 36 anchor- bolts built into the concrete. The concrete foundation has been laid, and the three lower sections of the iron-work have been set up. The material for thirteen sections of the tower have been received at the station. Operations will be resumed about the 1st of November. The north point the island is still washing away under the abrasive action of the sea. About 400 feet of the point of the island, and 25 feet of the easterly side opposite the light-house site, has disappeared within a year. It is proposed to build two or three brush or log jetties on the beach opposite the site, which it is thought will arrest the abrasive action of the sea. The station is so unhealthy that work can be carried on only about six months in the year. An appropriation of $10,000 is asked to build a keeper's dwelling for this station.
A freshwater pond near the site was identified as the cause of the malaria, and was drained. Work on the lighthouse continued in November of 1874. The cast-iron lighthouse was constructed of numerous iron plates, each weighing 1,200 pounds, and then lined inside with brick and was completed in June of 1875.
Hunting Island Lighthouse (Courtesy C.G.)
With lamps powered by kerosene flashing every thirty seconds, the tower was lighted for the first time on the night of July 1, 1875. Although the entry in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1872 had recommended a first-order lighthouse, a second-order Fresnel lens was utilized instead.
Due to the size and importance of the tower, a keeper and two assistants were needed to adequately staff the station. On March 3, 1875, a $10,000 appropriation was made by Congress to establish a keeper's residence and to provide erosion protection measures.
Construction of a massive three-story keeper's dwelling was completed on May 1, 1876. It measured 63 feet by 38 feet and to comfortably fit three families, it had twelve rooms. Several other out-buildings were constructed at that time, including an oil shed, two storage buildings, and brick cisterns with a total capacity of 7,000 gallons.
The building of the keeper's dwelling exhausted the appropriation, leaving no funds for the creation of proposed breakwaters.
An entry in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board in 1873 predicting the erosion would subside proved to be false, and by 1878, the ocean had continued its assault. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1878 had the following entry:
359. Hunting Island, South Carolina - The easterly side of the island has been washed away for about 20 feet during the past year, the shore-line being now 440 feet from the northeast corner of the dwelling.
The following year, some minor maintenance items were taken care of, including painting of the tower and dwelling. Erosion was brought up again, stating that it was slowly advancing, and that no actions were necessary yet. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board offered some recommendations if needed, which included construction of jetties and if needed, moving the tower.
A hurricane that struck the area in August of 1880 would accelerate the erosion and by 1881, the Lighthouse Board was asking for an appropriation of $8,000 to construct "works of protection" for the site. Other repairs were necessary as well, which included repairs to the keepers' house and roadway, the painting of the tower, and the building of a new landing wharf.
By 1883, the Lighthouse Board realized that a single jetty would be insufficient to protect the lighthouse, and recommended an additional two jetties be constructed. The Lighthouse Board had recommended that the appropriation request of $10,000 that was made last year, be renewed.
In 1884, the $10,000 appropriation still appeared in the reports. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1885 contained details of the construction of the jetty:
441. Hunting Island, on the north end of Hunting Island, entrance to Saint Helena Sound, South Carolina - The appropriation of $5,000 made by Congress for the protection of this site against the encroachment of the sea was devoted to building a stone jetty, located on the beach 400 feet south of the tower. The jetty consists of 733 square feet of log mattress, held in place by 550 cubic yards of stone, its shore end being protected by 250 square feet of brush mattress, held in place at the base and on the slope of the sand hills, from which the jetty springs, by 55 cubic yards of stone. As the erosion of the sea still continued on both sides of the jetty, in February a wooden revetment, 300 feet long, was built in front of the tower at extreme high-water mark - supported by the sand hills - parallel with the shore line. The combined structures have not yet been sufficiently tested to show whether they will be effectual in protecting the site. Hence, as a precautionary measure, a survey was made and a point selected to which the light-house may be removed should it become necessary. The boat-house, washed away in the August cyclone, was replaced upon a foundation of palmetto piles, and a boat-landing, with 80 lineal feet of raised plank walk to connect it with the shore, was built.
However, later in that same report, the Lighthouse Board pointed out that they felt a single jetty would provide insufficient protection of the lighthouse and recommended at least two more jetties be constructed. The report also stressed the need for the additional $10,000 appropriation requested last year. A special appropriation of $51,000 was also asked for to move the lighthouse if it became necessary.
At 9:50pm, on August 31, 1886, a powerful earthquake struck the Hunting Island Lighthouse. The exact time of the quake is known, as the clock in the tower stopped. It would later be known as The Charleston Earthquake of 1886 and, as the Richter scale wasn't developed until the 1930s, it was estimated to be between 6.6 and 7.3 on the Richter scale.
The keeper reported that he felt perceptible motion for nearly four minutes and felt four distinct shocks throughout the night. Reports stated that the tower shook so violently that the two assistant keepers in the watch room couldn't stand up without holding onto the railing.
For the time being, it appeared that the jetty and revetment system was holding the sea back, and that it would take a hurricane to remove the remaining 60 feet of land. In August of 1887, that hurricane came. It brought the Atlantic Ocean to a mere 60 feet from the keeper's dwelling, and only 152 feet from the outside steps of the lighthouse.
The time had come to move the lighthouse to safety. The final paragraph in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1887 sums up the request succinctly:
The result of the gale of last August shows that the beach line can not be held by any process which will cost as little as will the removal of the light-house to its new site. The recommendation made last year, that an appropriation of $51,000 be made for the purpose of purchasing a new site and moving the structure to a place of security, is renewed and urged as absolutely and immediately necessary for the safety of the tower, the building of which originally cost $102,000.
At that time, the Lighthouse Board felt that it was reasonably safe to leave the lighthouse where it was until preparations could be made to move it in August of 1888.
Congress obliged, and in April of 1888, appropriated the $51,000 to purchase the site surveyed previously and to move the lighthouse. At this time, the sea was within 35 feet of the keeper's quarters and 133 feet of the tower.
To shore up the location, during May and June of 1888, a heavy sheet-pile revetment, 200-feet long with retreating wings on each end was erected. This mechanism was meant to temporarily secure the location until the tower could be moved the following year.
Clear title to the new location came in early December, and workmen landed at the site on the 19th for the extensive preparatory work. Some of the work included, repairing 3,000 feet of tramway and constructing an additional 6,500 feet to link the old and new sites. An additional 3,000 feet was added to link the new site and a wharf on Johnson's Creek.
At that time, a temporary beacon outfitted with a fourth-order Fresnel lens was erected, standing 60-feet tall from base to the focal plane. This beacon would take over duties on February 1, 1889. At that time, the process of dismantling and moving the iron tower and keeper's quarters started.
Other preparations took place, such as the creation of a blacksmith and a carpenter shop, and two storehouses for cement. These tasks were completed by March 18, and by May 2, the whole lighthouse was dismantled.
Bad weather caused a two week delay in the arrival of building sand. Rather than waste the time, other tasks were carried out, such as scraping, cleaning, and painting the iron plates, receiving and storing bricks, and starting excavations for the keeper's dwelling.
The rebuilding of the tower started on June 12, and after a slow start, the pace quickened. By June 30, the tower's height was at 21 feet, two cisterns were built, and the foundation of the keeper's dwelling was underway.
As with the erection of the tower at the original location in 1874, malaria, again was rampant amongst the workers. Rather than putting off the work until fall, the workers pushed ahead, and by September 13, it was completed and turned over to the keeper.
As there was temporary living quarters at the new location for the keeper, the original keeper's dwelling was moved to the new location for safety, but wasn't permanently place due to the weakened condition of the workers.
The Hunting Island Lighthouse, in its new location about 1 1/8 miles to the southwest of the original location, was relit for the first time on October 3, 1889. At this time, the temporary beacon was discontinued.
Work to re-establish the keeper's quarters and erect an oil house, resumed on November 24 and was completed on March 22. Most workers were relieved at this time, however, several stayed behind to take down and transport the temporary housing and tools back to the Charleston Lighthouse Depot.
Work on the station continued throughout the years. In December 1892, a boat landing was built, and 3,200 feet of wooden tramway were repaired. In 1896, the roof of the dwelling was repaired and 80 feet of wooden plank walk were built.
The lighthouse would serve until June 16, 1933, when it was replaced by a lighted whistle buoy. The state acquired the island from Beaufort County in 1938, and work to convert the island into a state park started that same year. For access to the island, a bridge was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. While the group was constructing the bridge, they were housed in the old keeper's quarters.
Rumor has it, that the members of the Civilian Conservation Corps were engaged in a card game on the night of June 9, 1938, when a lantern was knocked over. Unable to control the ensuing fire, the members retreated out of the house. The end result was a forest fire that took three days to extinguish. Marines from nearby Parris Island were called in to help extinguish the blaze.
The keeper's quarters burned to the ground, leaving only the brick foundation, which was unearthed in 1995. When we visited in 1998, the foundation was outlined with wooden timbers to show the size and layout.
The lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977 and currently serves as a private aid to navigation.
Today, the tower is open for climbing, however, it was closed in 2003 when cracks in the iron staircase were discovered. Braces installed in 2004 helped strengthen the staircase, and the tower was reopened to visitors the following year.
Directions: From Beaufort, SC follow US-21 (Sea Island Parkway) east to Hunting Island State Park. There will be a fee to enter the park. At some point, US-21 merges with state route 406. Eventually you will see Hunting Island Drive. You will make a left onto this and follow it a short distance where you will make a left onto North Beach Drive. The lighthouse is at the tip if this road.
Access: The lighthouse is owned by the South Carolina State Parks system. Grounds open. Tower open.View more Hunting Island Lighthouse pictures