Description: Georgetown, named in honor of England’s King George I, became an official port in 1732, and by the time of the revolution was an important center of commerce. Acres of cypress swamps were cleared and over 780 miles of canals were dug, creating the second largest rice cultivation culture the world has known. Another important cash crop also raised at Georgetown was indigo, used to make a blue dye. The history of these important crops is told in the Rice Museum, located in the Georgetown Historic District.
On February 21, 1795, $5,000 was appropriated for a lighthouse near the entrance of the harbor of Georgetown. This sum was carried into the surplus fund, and another appropriation of the same amount was made on March 19, 1798 along with an additional $2,000. A seventy-two-foot, pyramidal tower, constructed of cypress wood, was finished in the early part of 1801, during the final days of John Adams’ presidency. Besides the tower, a two-story keeper’s dwelling was built along with a tank for holding the whale oil that fueled the lighthouse’s lamp. The wooden tower’s life was cut short by a violent storm in 1806.
Congress appropriated $20,000 on February 10, 1807 to rebuild the lighthouse in such a manner "to secure its future safety." This sum was carried into the surplus fund before it was used, forcing the same amount to be reappropriated on February 26, 1810. This time the tower was constructed of brick, greatly reducing the chance that a gale would topple the lighthouse. A marble plaque positioned above the door records the names of those who built the tower and lists 1811 as the year it was completed. Thomas Walker and James Evans, contractors from Charleston, were responsible for constructing the lighthouse, and they reportedly used slave labor. The staircase that spirals upward inside the stout brick tower is made of stone.
In 1850, eleven lamps and a corresponding number of fourteen-inch reflectors were being used to produce a fixed white light. A fourth-order Fresnel lens replaced the antiquated lamp and reflector apparatus in 1854, while retaining the same light characteristic.
After the Civil War broke out, the Confederates used Georgetown Lighthouse as a lookout station, until Union forces captured it in May of 1862. The lighthouse was heavily damaged during the North-South conflict, and as part of the post-war repair work, the tower was heightened to eighty-seven feet. This work was carried out in 1867 and included the installation of a new lantern room and a new fourth-order lens. At the same time, a new two-story dwelling, measuring twenty-four by twenty-six feet, was built for the keeper along with a cistern and boathouse.
On the night of August 31, 1886, the keeper at Georgetown Lighthouse was upstairs in bed when he heard a sound like thunder coming from the east. He jumped from bed and looked out the window, thinking it was a storm, but there wasn't a breath of wind. Before he had time to think what it could be, the house started to shake violently. A clock in the dwelling stopped at 9:57 p.m., the time of the first of eight shocks that were felt during the next several hours. What the keeper experienced was the Charleston earthquake of 1886, and though it caused severe damage and took around 100 lives in Charleston, the quake caused only minor damage on North Island.
The frame dwelling, 51 by 56 feet in plan, one and one-half stories high, with two brick chimneys, and piazza on all four sides, weighing 115 tons, was rolled 500 feet on skids to a trestle out in the water arranged to span two lighters. Hand-power cotton screws were used to force the dwelling along. The lighters were placed in position at ebb tide, and at flood tide the building was lifted clear of the trestle and was towed across the bay by the tenders Snowdrop and Water Lily to a similar trestle on the North Island side, the tender Mangrove assisting. From this point the dwelling was rolled 400 feet to the new site on the Georgetown reservation. The keeper’s family occupied the dwelling during the operation. The kitchen was brought over separately in the same manner, and neither structure suffered any damage.
Keeper Gabriel Jackson was serving at the lighthouse with assistant keeper George C. Ellis, when on November 5, 1938 an explosion rocked the boat the pair were traveling in on Winyah Bay. Both men jumped overboard at the first explosion. Ellis, unable to swim, held on to a wood plank, but he eventually lost hold and drowned. His body was never recovered. Jackson had drifted about two miles in the water when he was finally picked up after two hours by a towboat out of Georgetown. Keeper Jackson received burns over ninety percent of his body and was hospitalized for just over a month before he was able to return to the lighthouse.
The lighthouse remained a family station until a fire in 1968 destroyed the two keeper's dwellings. After this, the light was manned by a rotating Coast Guard crew. In 1983, Petty Officer Steve Cropper was in charge of the lighthouse and told of two unusual occurrences during his time at the lighthouse. In December 1980, the coastguardsmen at the lighthouse noticed a shrimp trawler passing the station without running lights that was riding low in the water. The crew radioed ahead, and the boat was intercepted and found to have more than twelve tons of marijuana on board. Another time, two men and a woman were sunbathing au naturel on the other side of the island. When it was time to leave, the men couldn't get the boat started and drifted away from the island, leaving the woman alone. Left without a stitch of clothing, the woman was forced to go to the lighthouse for help. "I looked up the beach and here comes this woman completely nude running down the beach," Cropper related. "I didn't know what to think."
Georgetown Lighthouse is the oldest lighthouse in South Carolina and was the last lighthouse in the state to be destaffed. In 1986, the light was automated and its six-person crew reassigned. Two years later, the seven-acre site was leased to the Department of Juvenile Justice, who used the facility for a marine institute rehabilitation program for juvenile offenders. The program was discontinued after a short period due to maintenance difficulties.
As stipulated in the will of former Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, South Island and all of North Island, save the lighthouse acreage, were bequeathed to the South Carolina Heritage Trust, creating the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Preserve. In 2001, the lighthouse property was added to the preserve. The lighthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and with it now under state control, the tower will hopefully be restored and one day open to the public. In addition to the lighthouse, an 1890 oil house, brick cistern, and more modern Coast Guard structures remain standing.
A fifth-order Fresnel lens used in Georgetown Lighthouse was on display at the Coast Guard station in Georgetown (Photograph provided by Mark Childers, Georgetown ANT) after being removed from the lighthouse in 1986, but in 2001 it was relocated and placed on display at the Coast Guard’s Seventh District headquarters in Miami. In 2014, the lens was returned to Georgetown and placed on display at the South Carolina Maritime Museum in Georgetown. As part of the ten-year lease with the Coast Guard, the museum was required to build a secure enclosure with a pedestal for the lens, purchase a lamp to illuminate it, and insure it for $250,000.
Located on North Island on the northern side of the entrance to Winyah Bay from
the Atlantic Ocean. The lighthouse is about 12.5 miles from Georgetown. The lighthouse is owned by South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Grounds open, tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Grounds open, tower closed.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
We visited this lighthouse with Capt'n Sandy. After boarding his boat at the Esterville Minim Creek Canal, we soon entered Winyah Bay, and traveled southeast for about five miles to reach the lighthouse. Along the way, Capt'n Sandy pointed out the fish nets stretched out to capture unsuspecting red drum fish, valued for their roe, and stopped to allow us to get a good view of a pair of bald eagles. I highly recommend a trip with Capt'n Sandy, and if you go, be sure and ask him to recount the story of Lighthouse Annie. Captain Sandy is a master storyteller, you can click here to read a very short version of the tale, but you really do need to hear the full-length story related by the captain as you pause in the waters near the lighthouse. A lighthouse adventure with Capt'n Sandy can be scheduled by calling (843) 527-4106.
See our List of Lighthouses in South Carolina
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.