The Georgetown Lighthouse – also called the North Island Light – is the elder of the two federally-operated lighthouses that remain in South Carolina. Guarding the entrance to Winyah Bay in Georgetown County, the lighthouse was built in 1811 and restored in 1867 after suffering damage during the Civil War.
The light’s history dates to 1789 when Revolutionary War patriot Paul Trapier donated land on North Island for the construction of a light. Rice and indigo were Georgetown‘s major cash crops, and planters and merchants depended on the city’s port to trade their wares. Ships traveling between North and South islands, which flank the entrance to Winyah Bay, needed a light to ensure safe piloting. The newly-formed federal Lighthouse Service appropriated funds towards the construction of the light in 1795 and again in 1798. In 1801 a 72-foot-tall cypress light tower was constructed on Trapier’s parcel, though it was destroyed by a storm in 1806.
The light tower was rebuilt in brick in 1811 with the use of slave labor and remained in use for several decades. The solid masonry structure even served as an encampment for soldiers during the War of 1812 and as a refuge during the hurricane of 1822 that wiped out most dwellings in the area.
During the Civil War, Confederate troops used the light tower as a lookout, only to have it captured by Union troops in May of 1862. The tower suffered damage during its Federal occupation; it underwent extensive repairs in 1867, at which time its height was increased to 87 feet. Though the 1886 Charleston earthquake reached as far as Georgetown, the new light suffered minimal damage from the disaster and has been in continuous use since it was built, though it became automated in 1986. Today the light is operated by the United States Coast Guard.
Two resort villages for planters once graced North Island. The original one – called La Grange – was established in the eighteenth century. In 1777, it was the site where the Marquis de Lafayette first landed in America after a 54-day voyage from France. The second village, named Lafayette in his honor, was up and running by 1820. It consisted of a church, more than 100 vacation homes, and several plantations. Wealthy white families gathered here to socialize and escape inland humidity.
Hurricanes in both 1820 and 1822 damaged the buildings on the island, and during the 1822 storm, at least 125 people drowned – the vast majority of them slaves. The community rebuilt by 1825, this time adding a school. However, hurricanes continued to ravage North Island, and these natural disasters, combined with the Civil War, led to the demise of the village. In its place, a pier and pavilion were built in 1910, and visitors came to North Island for day trips and evening dances. The pier and pavilion eventually burned, signifying the end of North Island as a beachside destination.
In 2001, the lighthouse property became part of the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center Heritage Preserve. Tom Yawkey, former owner and president of the Boston Red Sox baseball team, willed 31 square miles of land – which included both North and South islands – to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources upon his death in 1976 with the exception of the lighthouse acreage, which later was added. The preserve includes a diversity of natural communities, including marsh, wetlands, longleaf pine forests, and the open ocean. Wild game and non-game species alike are protected here, including more than 200 species of birds.
Georgetown’s Fresnel Lens
The following article was generously contributed to the SC Picture Project by Becky Billingsley of Myrtle Beach.
Its beauty belies the purpose of the lighthouse lens, which was critical for survival and for the local economy. In these days of sonar and radar and Doppler, it’s hard to believe that for more than a century such a fragile creation guided seafarers safely into port.
The Georgetown Lighthouse, located 14 miles from the port city on North Island, is the oldest operating lighthouse in South Carolina, and one of the oldest in the United States. During the Civil War, the circa 1811 brick conical structure was heavily damaged. Its reconstruction in 1867 included extending the lighthouse to 87 feet and installing a 5th order (1st order is the largest of 11 orders) Fresnel (pronounced fray-nell) lens.
Sautter, Lemonnier and Cie in Paris manufactured the lens, which was invented by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel in 1822. “It’s a series of clear glass prisms above and below the light source, which captures as much as 80 percent of the light source and beams it out to sea,” says Robert “Mac” McAlister, a historian and author who was instrumental in getting the lens returned to Georgetown. “The more prisms there are, the more light.” The light was fixed (versus rotating), and its concentrated beams could be seen up to 15 miles away.
Whale oil, then kerosene kept the light burning inside the lens until it was electrified. Lighthouse keepers who lived on the sparsely inhabited island kept its bristled edges clean and unbroken until 1968, when the U.S. Coast Guard took over the lighthouse’s operation. In 1986 it was automated, and in 1999, after 132 years of service, the Georgetown Lighthouse Fresnel lens was removed and retired from use.
The lens was displayed at a USCG facility in Miami, Florida, but after the SC Maritime Museum was established in 2011, its members began the process of seeking the lens’ return to Georgetown. On July 31, 2014, a reception was held to welcome the lens into the museum’s collection on a 10-year loan from the Coast Guard. It’s handsomely displayed inside a replica of the top of the Georgetown lighthouse, where its welcoming warm light still beckons visitors.
Reflections on the North Island Lighthouse
Dan Christie, a resident of Akron, Ohio and the artist below the painting above, recounts his 2008 tour of the Old Georgetown Light: “On one occasion the storm surge raised the water level to the bottom window of the lighthouse, which is easy to imagine. We loved the tour, and saw dolphins, pelicans, seashells, and even a bald eagle. I love South Carolina – thank you!”
R. Myers Truluck, Jr. of Lake City shares, “There was an entire village on North Island along North Inlet called Lafayette Village that had a church, school, and lots of summer homes for the planters. When I was a child we would take our boat to North Island to spend the day on the deserted beach, and I used to find antebellum clay pipes and porcelain sherds. Over by the light house at one time there were two large keepers’ houses, one of which was floated over from South Island, as well as this dance pavilion. They burned, and the Coast Guard built an unattractive station there in the 1960s. When I was a kid, the Department of Corrections was using the building to house youth offenders. The guards would sometimes come down to the beach and ask you to take your keys out of your boat, and if there was no key, they’d ask you to take the spark-plugs out of your outboard so the kids wouldn’t try to escape.”
Do you offer “stamping” of lighthouse passports?
Hope McFaddin says
Bob Blot, I’m with the SC Maritime Museum. You can contact us at email@example.com. Our curator may have information he can share with you regarding Georgetown Lighthouse keeper Kajetan E. Kremser.
SC Picture Project says
Hope, that is so generous and we really appreciate your reaching out to Bob! It’s an honor to have you help!
Bob Blot says
Does anyone know if Georgetown Lighthouse keeper Kajetan E. Kremser (1914-1919) had any connection with the Charleston lighthouse? In the 1910 US Census, his occupation was listed as a lighthouse keeper and he and his family were living in Santee, South Carolina.
Joann C. Fairbourn says
Do you know if there are any published journals or records by the lighthouse keepers? Capt Robert Marsh was my GGGGgrandfather. He died on 30 April 1829 on North Island. He was the lighthouse keeper at the time. I was hoping maybe there were some journals he kept somewhere.
Can you view lighthouse from land? Or is it only visible by boat?
Frances G. Johnson says
Yes you can! It is easy and beautiful. You do however need to be in shape, lol!
David H. Brown says
It is a fascinating story. It is a historical fictional account based on that actual event. Williamsburg, Charleston, and Georgetown counties are all involved. It will be available on Amazon, eBooks, and at Barnes and Noble. If you would like to help me set up a book signing I would greatly appreciate it!
David H. Brown says
In early January 1870 my great grandfather, Sidney McGill Brown, was challenged to a duel by a young man and was demanded to name a time and place to meet. Sidney named the lighthouse on North Island as the place and Saturday, January 22 noon as the time. I have written a book about this entitled “Only Death” which should be available in July 2019.
SC Picture Project says
Wow, David – now THAT is interesting! We can’t wait to see the book. Thank you for sharing this.
Margaret Brown says
My great-grandfather was Daniel J. Knight. He was the lighthouse keeper from 1886-1887 when he drowned trying to save a fisherman who was drowning.
Lee Brockington says
I would love to know more about the lighthouse keeper in your family. I am a historian at Hobcaw and we are beginning to lead tours in collaboration with Yawkey Wildlife Center. Are there already publications that include info on him or may l talk to you by phone sometime?
We are visiting Myrtle Beach this summer for a few days. I LOVE lighthouses. Is there a tour of one in the area?
SC Picture Project says
While not in Myrtle Beach, there is an offering in nearby Georgetown. There is a fantastic tour company known as Cap’n Rod’s who will take you by boat to North Island so you can explore the beach there, look for shells, as well as see the North Island Lighthouse up close. It is a beautiful area and not to be missed if you have the time! Here is a link to his tour: http://www.lowcountrytours.com/
Terrry Koston says
Stationed here in the mid 60s. Magical place with a million great memories. Yes, Tom Yawkey was a first class person and he along with the those who worked on “South Island” treated the Coast Guard exceptionally well. The “Skinner Pilots” were great masters of the Inlet & Bay. Sorry to see the light in its present condition.
SC Picture Project says
Terry, thank you so much for writing in! We would love to hear any and all stories you can think of about being stationed here. If you think of anything else you can share with our readers, please let us know because your experience is so valuable. Thank you again!
Dan Hart says
Is metal detecting allowed on North Island?
We doubt it, but you can reach out directly to the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center, which owns the property. The phone number is 843-546-6814 – hope this helps!
Franklin Sams says
Can I send this to a friend who is from Georgetown, but now lives on Hilton Head? He’s an architect.
Jessica loos says
Are there still tours? My family and I are traveling down there in two weeks. We’d love to come see the beautiful lighthouse.
It is! http://discoversouthcarolina.com/products/25741
Dawn Curtis says
Is this lighthouse open to the public ?
No, it is closed to the public.
Linda Thomas-Cook says
Going tomorrow for the first time. Can't wait!
Robin Welch says
I love it when artists add paintings to the South Carolina's Picture Project …
MarkandJudy Davidson Webster says
I was stationed there in 1972, the lenses were still in place and I met Tom Yawkey. The painting makes it look abandoned.
Wendy Leyes says
In 1926, my mother and her family were living on the island, and the only other family there was the lighthouse keeper and his family. It is my understanding that my grandfather took care of a radio station/relay that he maintained for the U.S. Navy. I would dearly love to go there once.
Lee Brockington says
I would love to talk with you about your memories. I am a historian at Hobcaw Barony and lead tours in collaboration with Yawkey Wildlife Center. Your family story is an important one.
I love lighthouses – what a beautiful sight!