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 lighthouse’s 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 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.
In 1909, a keeper’s dwelling was built on South Island for a keeper responsible for attending lights there. In December 1915, Charles F. Johnson, who was serving as keeper on South Island, shot himself with a revolver. Johnson had been suffering from tuberculosis of the throat and had recently been unable to swallow food. He had made several threats to take his own life and a few days before had selected his own casket. The following year, in 1916, it was decided to consolidate the stations near Georgetown, and the relatively new dwelling on South Island was moved one-and-a-quarter miles across Winyah Bay to North Island. The following description of the relocation was published in the Lighthouse Service Bulletin:
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.
A Georgetown Times newspaper article, dated December 29, 1933, reported that Head Keeper Joseph W. Grisillo had been found dead setting in a chair inside his keeper’s dwelling. The sheriff and coroner were immediately dispatched to the island to investigate the matter, and the coroner ruled that Grisillo had come “to his death through natural causes.” A native of Austria, Keeper Grisillo had served as assistant keeper at Hunting Island, Cape Romain, Tybee Island, and Charleston before being appointed head keeper at Georgetown around 1920. His family lived in Charleston most of the time he was at Georgetown Lighthouse so his children could attend school.
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 in 1976, creating the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Preserve. In 2001, the lighthouse property was added to the preserve. Georgetown 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 opened 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 a 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.