South Carolina’s 180-mile coastline is replete with bays, inlets, and harbors. To assist shipping and aid navigation, lighthouses and beacons have dotted the South Carolina coast for centuries. The earliest warning lights were probably bonfires lit to aid ships entering the harbor at Charleston. South Carolina’s first lighthouse, built in 1767, stood on Middle Bay Island (now a part of Morris Island) in the Charleston harbor.
When the federal government assumed responsibility for all lighthouses in 1789, South Carolina had only one—the Morris Island lighthouse. That year Paul Trapier donated land for a lighthouse on North Island at the mouth of Winyah Bay. The Georgetown lighthouse was completed and lit in 1801. Both the Morris Island and Georgetown lighthouses were rebuilt during the antebellum period, and lighthouses were added on Lighthouse Island (Raccoon Key) at Cape Romain in 1827 and 1857 and on Hunting Island in Beaufort County in 1859.
By 1860 four lighthouses—Morris Island, Cape Romain, Georgetown, and Hunting Island—and beacons at Charleston, Morris Island, Sullivan’s Island, Fort Sumter, Castle Pinckney, and Battery guarded the South Carolina coast. Upon secession, South Carolina seized the lighthouses. Confederate forces dismantled the lights and sometimes destroyed the lighthouses to prevent their use by Union forces.
Heightened lighthouse activity followed the Civil War. A new lighthouse was built on Morris Island around 1876, the Cape Romain and Georgetown lighthouses were repaired, the Hunting Island light was rebuilt in 1875, and range lights were erected on Daufuskie (Haig’s Point and Bloody Point) and Hilton Head Islands. Aligning with the range lights enabled vessels to successfully follow river channels. The Hunting Island light, an important nautical landmark between Savannah and Charleston, warned ships away from the coast.
A story from a hurricane in 1898 illustrates the human side of lighthouse keeping. Adam Fripp, keeper of the Leamington Rear Range Light on Hilton Head, died of a heart attack as the winds extinguished the light. His daughter relit the light, kept it burning through the storm, and then died from the effort a few weeks later.
In the twentieth century the United States Lighthouse Service / United States Coast Guard first automated and later abandoned most of South Carolina’s lighthouses. A major exception was the construction of the Sullivan’s Island light station (the new Charleston Lighthouse) in 1962. The Georgetown Light is the only one of South Carolina’s nineteenth-century lights in active use. The Haig Point (Daufuskie Rear Range) Light, although deactivated, aids private navigation in Calibogue Sound.
The romantic lure of lighthouses has produced two facsimile lights on the South Carolina coast: the Governor’s Light built on Little River in 1985; and the Harbor Town Lighthouse built in 1970 at the Sea Pines Plantation on Hilton Head Island. The new and the abandoned lighthouses still stand as landmarks for mariners navigating the South Carolina coast.
Roberts, Bruce. Southern Lighthouses: Chesapeake Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. Chester, Conn.: Globe Pequot, 1989.