The Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina is home to two lighthouses, both of which stand on what is known today as Lighthouse Island. The first tower was established in 1827. The conical brick tower stands 65 feet in height and its light was once exhibited about 90 feet above the water.
The tower was constructed to mark the cape and warn of the dangerous shoals that have claimed the lives of many sailors. However, this lighthouse proved to be ineffective due to a poor lighting apparatus. The apparatus was changed in 1847, but the lighthouse still failed to do its job, so a second tower was needed.
Construction of the second tower was completed in 1857 by slave labor. The tower is octagonal in shape and constructed of brick. The lighthouse was fitted with a first order Fresnel lens. The tower's light was first seen on January 1, 1858 and it proved to be effective at marking the shoals and saving lives. The lighthouse managed to survive the Civil War after being darkened by Confederates. It was built slightly out of plum and the tilt became so bad that the lens had to be disassembled and reseated to continue operation.
In 1931, the tower's lens was replaced with a rotating bull's-eye lens, later automated in 1937. The light was discontinued in 1947. Even though the tower still leans, it has survived countless storms. Both towers are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Our recent adventure to the Cape Romain Lighthouses began about 7 a.m. My girlfriend Christina Walter and I were to meet the tour group at 9 a.m. at the information station for the Wildlife Refuge. As usual, we were the first ones there (I like being early). The group met in the conference room where general information about the trip was discussed, and we were given a short presentation by one of the local men trying to save the lighthouses. We learned of the history of the lighthouses, and the current efforts to help preserve them.
We were also told that when we got to the island, that we were going to have to hop off of the boat and wade in the muddy water to shore, due to the tides and the fact that there is no longer a dock on the island. We were also told to be prepared for the fact that there is a group of wild goats that inhabit the island, and we were warned to be on the lookout for water moccasins and copperheads. After all matters were in order, the group made the short trip to McClellanville where we would catch the ferry.
At the dock, we were met by the captain and naturalist of Coastal Expeditions, who would take us to Lighthouse Island. After the group boarded, we began the slow, approximately hour-long boat ride out to the island. The ride was a bit uncomfortable due to the coolness of the air and the strong breeze that was blowing. About halfway to the island, the captain spotted a bald eagle flying overhead. He stopped the boat so that all who wanted to could take pictures. It was the first time I had ever seen a bald eagle in the wild.
Upon reaching the Island, we had to wade in the water. The two of us were the first off the boat and the first on the island. The water was cold, muddy, and about knee deep. We got on shore, dried off and got our shoes back on. We then traveled up the path toward the lighthouses.
Most everyone went to the lighthouse built in 1857, so we went on to the smaller, older tower first. As we walked up to the lighthouse, you could see the obvious presence of the goats (enough said). When we arrived at the door to the lighthouse, we were greeted by the remains of a dead goat. It was evident that it had been there for some time. It was not unbearable and it did not smell.
I will have to admit that I was a bit uneasy about entering the tower because of the dead goat taking up most of the doorway. I did not know if there were any live ones inside waiting for me, but I went in anyway. Once inside, I was able to see that the lower ten to twenty feet of the wooden stairs were missing, but the center post still held the upper section of the stairs in place. On the inside eve of the door, the year the lighthouse was constructed was carved into the woodwork. After seeing all there was to see at the small lighthouse, we walked around the lighthouse compound.
The goats have done a good job keeping the vegetation down so that it is fairly easy to walk around. Since the keeper's quarters are no longer standing (the foundation is all that remains), the two lighthouses are all that's left. We walked over to the newer tower and stood beside it and looked up. Standing beside the tower really makes you feel small. We then proceeded around to the front of the lighthouse and waited our turn to climb the tower. While we waited, we checked out the steps that had been constructed by those committed to saving the lighthouses. The stairs were built about ten years ago and the lighthouse was painted around the same time. I believe that this is third different daymark that this lighthouse has possessed. It was interesting to see that a small storage room was built under the entrance of the lighthouse, and this made the entrance some ten feet off the ground. There was a pencil mark in the storage room about eight to nine feet high on the wall to mark how deep the water was in the room during Hurricane Hugo!
When it was our turn to climb the lighthouse, we quickly understood why we had to take turns going up. The windows of the lighthouse had been blown out and had not been replaced for some 30 years. The absence of the windows had allowed the salt air to eat away at the cast-iron stairway and had taken a great toll. As we ventured up the stairs, we could feel them shake as we walked. There was little risk of the stairs falling but their movement definitely made you feel uneasy, especially since there was no handrail like there is in most lighthouses that are open to climb.
As the steps wind up to the landing at the top, there is a small set of steps that you must climb to get to the gallery level. These steps are fairly steep, and with no handrail, are difficult to climb.
Once at the top, the view is worth the climb. We were able to step out of the door onto the gallery to enjoy the view. We were not permitted to walk outside around the gallery because the handrail was very loose and no one wanted to risk falling. Then we proceeded into the lantern room, which meant climbing up another small staircase and a very small opening. The view was spectacular!
After taking several pictures, we began the journey back down the stairway to the bottom of the lighthouse. Once outside, we took more pictures of the lighthouses and made sure that we had not missed anything. When everyone came down from the top, we helped close up the lighthouse and began walking down the path toward the boat. I mentioned to the group leader that I almost stepped on a green snake and he said that he had never seen one out there before. "That means there are at least three different types of snakes on the island," he said. The others are copperheads and water moccasins.
We removed our shoes and waded back through the water and got back on the boat. While traveling back to the dock, we were joined by a small school of about eight dolphins that swam alongside us. Back at the dock, we said goodbye to all the friends we made and headed for home.
A dedicated group of local preservationists led by Tommy Graham is working on behalf of Cape Romain's two lighthouses. If you're interested in making a donation toward the stabilization of the lighthouses, contact Larry Davis at the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge at (843) 928-3368. The Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge and Coastal Expeditions run two public trips per year to the lighthouses. At this writing, the October 2002 tour is already booked. For more information:
Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge
5801 Highway 17 North
Awendaw, South Carolina, 29429
Phone: (843) 928-3264
Web site: caperomain.fws.gov
This story appeared in the
August 2002 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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