In 1853, a variety of merchants, planters and owners of South Carolina vessels petitioned the federal government to provide navigation aids and modifications to existing ones. One of their requests was for a “lighthouse and corresponding beacon light in the steads of the St. Helena Light-ship, at the northern end Hunting Island Lighthouse, to rangefor the Swash channel.” Hunting Island Lighthouse was approximately thirty-five miles from Tybee Island to its south and Charleston to the north. A major light there would be a great help in achieving the goal of no dark voids on the coast.
Congress allocated $30,000 to the beacon light and lighthouse on August 3, 1854. The Lighthouse Board published the following Notice to Mariners on March 8, 1859. This amount was spent in 1856, 1857 and 1857.
This notice is given to inform you that the new beacon and light-house on Hunting Island’s north point will be lit at sundown Friday, July 1st. They will also be lit every night from sunset until sunrise thereafter.
Conical tower made of reddish-gray brick is the main light-house. The top 25 feet will be painted white. A brass lantern is used to illuminate the tower.
The illuminating apparatus, a lens of Fresnel’s second order, shows a natural-colored revolving light. It takes 30 seconds between flashes. The tower measures 95 feet in height, while the focal plane stands 108 feet above sea level. Clear weather should allow the light to be seen for 17 nautical miles.
The 32-foot beacon light is a wooden frame with openwork, which is painted white and stands 32 feet high. The focal plane is located 39 feet above sea level. The sixth order Fresnel lens is used to illuminate the area. It emits a fixed light of natural colors.
Hunting Island Lighthouse was activated at the appointed time by Anton Johnson, who was the first head keeper. Two assistants were also under his command. Given Hunting Island’s shoreline in 2000, the notice indicated that the lighthouse was approximately two miles from Hunting Island’s northern end.
The original Hunting Island Lighthouse has been demolished. However, it was not destroyed by the advancing sea, but rather by a retreating army. Confederate forces destroyed the lighthouse to stop the Union fleet from approaching it before the Battle of Port Royal in 1861.
A few years later, plans for a new tower were drawn up. Congress granted $30,000 to begin construction on June 10, 1872. However, the condition was that it be built on government-owned land. The district engineer conducted a survey of Hunting Island’s northern end in 1872. He found that approximately a quarter mile of Hunting Island’s shoreline had been lost over the three previous years. The Lighthouse Board requested an additional $50,000 to build an iron lighthouse that could be relocated due to the rapid rate at which erosion was occurring. Congress authorized this additional amount on March 3rd 1873 and soon after, a construction crew was sent to the island to build a temporary wharf as well as quarters for the workers.
The “unhealthiness” of the climate forced the work to be stopped during summer. It was not possible to resume the work until spring 1874. A concrete foundation of eight feet thick was laid, and the first three iron tower courses were bolted into place. The work was stopped at the end June and resumed only in November. The lighthouse, which measured 121 feet high, was completed in June 1875. It was first displayed on July 1, 1875 with its distinctive white flash every 30 seconds. Phoenix Iron Works, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, made the metallic shell. It was clad with bricks and covered with a Fresnel second-order lens.
To drain the freshwater pool that was near the lighthouse which was believed to be the primary reason for the station’s unhealthiness, ditches were made and Eucalyptus seedlings were planted. Although Eucalyptus trees were initially believed to be able to fight malaria, it was later discovered that they actually did this by drying the land and eliminating mosquito breeding areas. A British surgeon who was working in India in 1897 proved that malaria is transmitted by mosquitoes.
Congress approved $10,000 to build a keeper’s house and protect the site on March 3, 1875. Over 400 feet of the island’s tip were lost during construction. However, it was believed that the tower, which is located almost a mile south of the tip, could be kept safe for as long as a few log jetties were installed. The station was manned by a head keeper and two assistants. A spacious, two-and-a half-story dwelling was built to accommodate the entire crew on May 1, 1876. It measured sixty-three feet by thirty-eight inches and contained twelve rooms. To store water, the station had cisterns that could hold $7,000 gallons.
The effects of the Charleston earthquake at the station were felt at 9:50 on August 31, 1886. The exact time was easy to track as the tremor stopped the clock at the lighthouse. The shock that struck the tower’s top landing was strong enough to drain a bucket half-full of water. It lasted approximately four minutes. Two assistants at the top of the tower couldn’t hold onto anything and could not stand without being held up. One assistant was outside in the gallery, and was thrown between the tower and railing. The chickens of the station were shaken off their perches, and fled from the coop in apparent terror.
A stone jetty built on the beach next to the station was constructed in 1886 using a $5,000 Congress appropriation. The jetty was well-functioning until August 1887 when a storm swept away most of it and brought the ocean within 60 feet of the dwelling, and the tower to 152 feet. In April 1888, Congress provided $51,000 to the Lighthouse Board for the purchase of a new site and the relocation of station structures. To protect the site, a 200-foot long heavy sheet-pile revetment was constructed along the beach with retreating wings at both ends. To serve mariners, a temporary tower was built on February 1, 1889 and topped with a fourth-order lamp.
The six-month period from March 18 to September 13 1899 saw the lighthouse being dismantled, moved along a tramway and then reassembled a quarter mile inland. The workers suffered from malarial fever during the summer months but continued to work hard. The temporary light was turned off and the lighthouse was re-lit on October 1, 1889. In September, the exhausted workers went to Charleston to recuperate. They returned to Charleston in November to rebuild the keepers’ dwelling which they had moved to the new location and to erect an oil house. On March 22, 1890, the station was again complete. Relocating the station cost $51,000. This is exactly half the cost of construction fourteen years ago.
The 272-foot steamship City of Savannah I, a steamship measuring 272 feet, was stranded on Hunting Island Lighthouse during the 1893 hurricane. The men on board tied themselves to the masts while twelve women and children were put in lifeboats and rowed the surf-streaked shoreline. They swam through waist-deep water to reach safety at the lighthouse, where they waited out the storm. The steamship City of Birmingham finally saved the men after 36 hours of being tied to the rigging and eating only raw turnips.
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