Georgetown Lighthouse – Winyah Bay, South Carolina
South Carolina | SC Picture Project | Georgetown County Photos | Georgetown Lighthouse
The Georgetown Lighthouse – also called the North Island Light – is the older 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.
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
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, OH and the artist behind 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!”
Georgetown Lighthouse Info
Address: Winyah Bay, North Island, SC 29440
Georgetown Lighthouse Map
Georgetown Lighthouse Add Info and More Photos
The purpose of the South Carolina Picture Project is to celebrate the beauty of the Palmetto State and create a permanent digital repository for our cultural landmarks and natural landscapes. We invite you to add additional pictures (paintings, photos, etc) of Georgetown Lighthouse, and we also invite you to add info, history, stories, and travel tips. Together, we hope to build one of the best and most loved SC resources in the world!