By Tony Kukulich
Damage to stairs and railings in the Hunting Island State Park lighthouse prompted park officials to close the popular tourist attraction to tours until further notice.
“It’s a really old facility,” said Park Manager Brandon Goff with South Carolina State Parks. “One of the things we have to do as state park stewards is inspect the facility and make sure we’re taking care of it.”
According to Goff, an inspection conducted last week revealed signs of stress in the lighthouse stairs and the railing around the walkway.
“The decision was made at that time that in order to keep the public safe; keep the staff safe and take care of the integrity of that historic structure to close it to public tours,” Goff said. “We’re going to keep all of the grounds open. We’re going to keep all of the out parcels open. We have all of our volunteers and docents are staff that are able to interpret the history of the lighthouse. You can walk around the lighthouse. You just can’t climb the lighthouse.”
According to the Friends of Hunting Island, Hunting Island State Park receives more than 1 million visitors per year. The park’s 136-foot tall lighthouse is the only one in South Carolina open to the public. Those who are capable can climb the 167-step spiral staircase to the light’s observation deck. When the lighthouse is open, reservations to make the climb are required.
Exactly how long the lighthouse will be closed and how much it will cost have yet to be fully determined.
“As with any large project, there are a lot of moving pieces,” Goff explained. “We have got a panel created. We put together some heads with the agency to give ourselves a really good idea how we’re going to monitor progress.”
The lighthouse was closed for repairs in May 2003 when cracks were discovered in several of its cast-iron steps. During an 18-month long restoration, construction crews repaired the cracks and installed steel brace reinforcement underneath the stairs. The braces were left unpainted to easily distinguish between the original structure and modern improvements intended to protect the lighthouse’s historic integrity.
“We’re balancing public access and customer service with taking care of historic structures,” Goff said. “That’s a delicate walk to do that.”
The original structure was built in 1859. It was intentionally destroyed only a few years later by Confederate troops during the Civil War. Their goal was to prevent Union naval forces from using it during their blockade of the coast. Construction of a replacement light was completed in 1875. The new lighthouse was constructed of interchangeable cast-iron sections so it could be dismantled should it ever need to be moved. That feature came in handy when in 1889 severe beach erosion made it necessary to relocate the lighthouse 1.3 miles inland.
Up until the Hunting Island lighthouse was decommissioned in 1933, light from its Second Order Fresnel lens could be seen as far as 18 miles out to sea.
“The lighthouse is a fixture of the park and a fixture of the Lowcountry,” Goff stated. “I feel like (the closure) will have minimal impact to regional tourism. We have virtual reality so you can virtually climb the lighthouse. By offering virtual climbs we may actually generate some additional interest from folks that maybe couldn’t climb to the top of the lighthouse physically.”
Tony Kukulich is a recent transplant to the Lowcountry. A native of Wilmington, Del., he comes to The Island News from the San Francisco Bay Area where he spent seven years as a reporter and photographer for several publications. He and his wife enjoy exploring their new home state. He can also frequently be found playing bass guitar with a couple of local bands. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.