My wife Mary and I have always been in love with lighthouses. It all started many years ago when, by pure chance, we ended up staying overnight at California’s Pigeon Point Lighthouse. Even though our backs ached from a combination of old cots and sleeping bags, we felt privileged to be able to experience and explore that wonderful beacon. We never in our wildest dreams believed that some day we would sleep in our own beds in our own lighthouse.
So this is a history of the Bloody Point Lighthouse located on the Southern end of Daufuskie Island, South Carolina. I call it the “Forgotten Lighthouse” because as of this writing you will struggle to find it in any lighthouse books. But the fact that it has been forgotten is the reason Mary and I were able to buy it in the first place.
Let’s start with recent history, the series of events that played themselves out and led to that fateful day when a fellow realtor asked, “Do you want to buy a lighthouse?” Then I will go back in time when the first keeper, John Michael Doyle, first set foot on Daufuskie.
Mary and I moved to Hilton Head Island fifteen years ago to escape the snowy northwestern Pennsylvania winters. Our home was a wonderful hand-hewn log cabin overlooking a beautiful Pennsylvania Fishing Commission lake called Tamarack. When we moved to Hilton Head Island, we purchased a traditional home complete with walls covered with drywall. Well, quite frankly, once you experience the warmth and coziness of a log home you are never quite the same. The drywall and the house had to go and we finally settled on building a post and beam home on our newly acquired lot on Daufuskie Island’s Haig Point Plantation.
We met with an architect from New Hampshire and selected a few plans. There was one feature, however, I wanted him to include, and that was a replica of the fireplace and mantle in the Bloody Point Lighthouse. The lighthouse at the time was being used as a golf pro shop.
Upon arrival our young friend was instantly fascinated with the structure and immediately pointed out we were looking at “classic” post and beam construction. He, like most visitors, had expected something different — he had expected a tall structure that “looked like a lighthouse.”
What he found was a traditional Low Country style building looking more like a cottage. I explained the one feature, however, that was unique — the single large dormer window on the roof. That is where the light was lit and maintained by the keeper.
We peered through the old wavy glass panes, made a few sketches and commented about what a wonderful home it could have been. Months later I would call his office and explain I had purchased the old mantle and, oh, by the way, we purchased the lighthouse to go along with it!
I had known a permanent golf pro shop was being constructed for Bloody Point, but I never believed the developers and owners would ever sell that beautiful historic structure. I was certain they had other plans for what had become the “symbol of Bloody Point.” Boy was I surprised to later find out it was under contract and a group of investors were planning to convert it into a bed and breakfast. I was even more surprised when I found out later the investor “deal” had fallen through and a young couple now had it under contract. Wow! That could have been me if only I would have let the “powers that be” know my interest! So I did!!!!! “If this deal ever falls through, please, yes pretty Please, let me know. Then came that fateful day. The phone rang and I was asked the most wonderful question since “Do you take this woman?” “Do you want to buy a lighthouse?!!!!”
With pen in shaky hand, Mary and I signed the papers that would forever after make us a part of Daufuskie Island history. Our home on Hilton Head sold quickly and I immediately got down to the task of restoration. I was lucky in this regard because the owners prior to the property being used as a golf pro shop had already done extensive renovations. Most importantly, the wiring and plumbing was up to standard. The first task at hand was to rip up the carpeting that had been laid to protect the heart of pine floors from golf spikes. Upon inspection I found that the carpeting had been glued to the floors. Needless to say, that meant hiring a professional floor finisher and two weeks of constant sanding. The result was superb, however, as the old pine sprung back to life. A healthy coat of wax, not polyurethane, was applied and I was off to the next task, cleaning.
Consider the fact that a bunch of heavy smoking golf pros literally lived in the lighthouse for twelve years and you will understand the task at hand. Thousands of golfers had also trooped through the place and the cleaning and maintenance had obviously been sub par. Also consider that the entire interior, ceilings and walls, are pine bead board. I literally hand washed and wiped every square inch, not once, but three times. Most of the walls were left in their natural state by the previous owners and only the upstairs bedrooms and “light room” needed to be painted.
Then came that wonderful day after months of work when I realized I was done, at least with the interior. The exterior power washing, painting and wood rot would have to wait. It was time to show off my work to Mary. I purposely had keep her out of that mess — smart, right? —and the big day had arrived. Needless to say, I was a “smashing hit” that day and I will never forget the way she beamed as I gave her the grand tour. Our furniture arrived by barge a few weeks later and there we were, living in a lighthouse.
We all know that the main function of any lighthouse is to direct mariners and save lives, but why build one at Bloody Point? Even today, as I stand on the beach looking toward Tybee Island, the reason is very obvious. Huge container ships from all over the world constantly enter the Savannah River channel on their way to the Savannah Port. The port was even more important back in the 1700s when Savannah was growing by leaps and bounds. Imports and exports arriving by the river were essential for the city to survive and moving sand bars and shoals made the passage treacherous. For that reason, a lighthouse was located on Tybee as early as 1736. As ships entered the river they would navigate by using Tybee on their left, or port side. In 1881, the Lighthouse Service realized a need for lights on the right or starboard side to further ensure their safety. Two range lights, as they were called, would be constructed. Captains would align the front and back range light to give them their exact position. Mr. James C. LaCoste from Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina was given the contract to build the front light. Mr. John Michael Doyle with the Cooper Manufacturing Company of Mt. Vernon, Ohio would build the back light. Even then folks from Ohio were coming south.
By April of 1883 construction was completed. The front light, painted bright white with lead trim, stood proud and was ready for duty. As I mentioned earlier, this lighthouse looked more like a keeper’s cottage than a traditional tall standing lighthouse like Tybee. Nevertheless, the red kerosene light that shone from the single large upstairs dormer window worked to perfection. The back light, located 4350 feet inland, was also unusual for a lighthouse. It seems Congress had appropriated insufficient funds for a “proper” lighthouse (imagine that!) and erected a triangular white metal tower, like our cell phone towers of today. The source of light was a locomotive headlight in the form of a powerful parabolic reflector, which produced a red beam with a range of 12 miles. The light was kept in the “lamp room,” an eight by ten foot brick building where it was cleaned, maintained and stored during the day. At night the keeper would run the light up on rails to a height of 81 feet. The entire system worked perfectly, all that was needed was a lighthouse keeper.
Here is where John Michael Doyle steps in again. It seems this Ohio native liked the Low Country so much he applied and was awarded the position of keeper. Mr. Doyle would serve for seven years and would see an increase in pay from $620 to a whopping $660 per year. During his tenure he would oversee the building of a 12 by 20 ft kitchen (Mary’s kitchen today) off the southwest corner of the house. He would also build a boathouse.
In August of 1890, Robert A. Sisson, a Canadian, became the second lighthouse keeper. Obviously, he also wanted to live in a warm climate and he found just that in August’s hot sultry days. He served until May 1908, when he was replaced by his son, Charles Leslie Sisson. Charles was sent to Fernadina Beach in Florida in August of 1910 and his Dad returned to Bloody Point to resume his light keeper’s duties.
When I first saw the picture of Robert Augustus Sisson standing with his staff of four on what is now my front porch, I first thought he was in his Civil War uniform. After all, Mr. Sisson was a former member of the 157th New York Regiment. Looking closer with a magnifying glass — my eyes aren’t what they used to be — I could clearly see the “K” for Keeper on his lapels as well as the typical keeper’s hat and uniform. Obviously he was very proud of his Civil War background because he is proudly displaying his sword. It is interesting to note that both Sisson and John Michael Doyle served together in the Army of the Potomac.
Augustus Sisson was kept quite busy during his tenure. Besides the obvious tasks of maintaining both range lights he would supervise the moving of the front range light in December 1899 to a location inland next to the back range light. Significant erosion obviously isn’t a recent phenomenon and the only way to save the wood structure was to move it. At that point the front range lighthouse would be utilized as the keeper’s cottage and a metal tower recycled from the Venus Light Station in South Carolina would be erected. This tower could be moved fairly easily and away from the encroaching waves. On top of that, he lived through the great 1893 hurricane that took his kitchen, now Mary’s, and rolled it from its foundations. Damage was significant and many of his family’s personal items were lost.
The next keeper (1910) was Gustaf Ohlman. He obviously didn’t like cold weather either and originally arrived in Charleston on a sailing schooner from Sweden. To help him with his tasks he hired John A. Robertson, Jr. as his assistant keeper. Three years later Robertson would be replaced by Arthur Ashley Burn, Jr., now know as Papy.
In 1922, the government decided there was no further need for the Bloody Point Range Lights. The lights were extinguished and the back metal tower was dismantled. A Mr. Francis M. Keenan purchased the lighthouse and a few years later sold it back to the former keeper, Gustaf Ohlman. A few years after that, the last assistant keeper Arthur A. (Papy) Burn purchased the lighthouse for his residence.
If there was ever a person that should have owned the Bloody Point Lighthouse it was Papy Burn. Each time I meet with Billy Burn, Papy’s daughter-in-law and author of the incredible book An Island Named Daufuskie, she tells me how much he loved the lighthouse. He occupied it for 40 years, lived through four wives, the last being his first sweetheart, and became a pillar of the community. As a magistrate he held court and married folks in what is now our sun room. He also loved flowers and had thousands of them planted around the house. Papy has been quoted that he “wouldn’t give a teaspoon of Daufuskie for the whole state of South Carolina,” and that “Daufuskie was the nearest place to heaven as one could get on this earth.”
There is one thing, however, that Papy is really remembered for and that is the Silver Dew Winery. Papy loved making wine and made it out of scuppernong grapes, elderberries, pears or whatever he could find. He converted the lamp house, the brick building that had housed the rear range light, into the winery and actually made it under license in 1953. He stored the wine in the oil house, adjacent to the lamp house, on the original racks that until then had held kerosene. Markings on the wall still show how he aged the wine. Papy never drank the wine but only tasted it and gave it to his friends. In his honor, I am currently in the process of making pear wine from trees he planted in the lighthouse yard. It is important to note here that most Islanders and visitors, until now, have known the lamp house as the Winery. They never knew about its historic past and that it is only one of two lamp houses known to exist in the United States. The other is on the Paris Island Marine Base in Beaufort, South Carolina.
Papy sold the lighthouse in June of 1966 and left the Island due to poor health. The last Bloody Point Lighthouse Keeper died on January 20, 1968. His body was returned to Daufuskie, the Island he loved so much.
Simon Kehoe and his sister Mary purchased the lighthouse from Papy and used it primarily as a second home. In 1981 it was sold to a Mr. Jim Batey. In April 1983 it was sold to Mr. James P. Black. Both Mr. Batey and Black made extensive renovations. In October 1988 title passed to Beach Lagoon Associates. Mary and I signed our purchase contract February 1999 and made the big move in June of 1999.
So there you have it, a brief history of the “Forgotten Lighthouse” at Bloody Point. From all indications the former keepers and their families that have passed truly loved this place. They found this special lighthouse on the mystical Island of Daufuskie was more than a place to work. It was a place for them to live, to raise their families. It was also a place for them to dream. So that’s what I do in the total still of the night, standing alone in the lamp room listening to the waves crash on the Bloody Point shore. I dream of the future, but I just can’t help embracing the past, trying to smell the kerosene, and letting the keepers of the past know I will love and protect the old lighthouse in their memory until my dying day.
If you would like to learn more about this lighthouse, contact Joe Yocius at Dunes Marketing Group, W.M. Byrne BIC, PO Box 21326, Hilton Head Island, SC 29925. Ph 1-800-258-5202, fax 843-842-4788. www.lowcountryjoe.com Email Info@LowCountryJoe.com
This story appeared in the
September 2001 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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