Saturday is National Lighthouse Day

Above: The Old Hunting Island Light Station. Photo courtesy of Friends of Hunting Island.

By Theodore Panayotoff

On August 7, 1789, President George Washington signed into law the ninth act passed by the very first Congress of the United States of America.

The Public Works Act brought the lighthouses of the new country, then about a dozen, under Federal control and established what became known as the U.S. Lighthouse Service. This organization of dedicated Federal workers devoted their lives and those of their families to the safety of mariners along the nation’s coasts, bays, harbors, and rivers.

Before railways and usable roads, the entire nation’s economy depended on moving goods and people by water safely and efficiently, day and night. Lighthouses were the key.

Like our Hunting Island Lighthouse here in Beaufort County, many today are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and represent the height of the engineering technology of the day.

Theodore Gaillard, the last Principal Keeper at Hunting Island Light Station, and his wife Ellen Gaillard. Photo courtesy of Friends of Hunting Island.

It was the end of the 20th century before all US lighthouses were automated and all the keepers withdrawn. For more than 200 years, keepers and their families staffed U.S. lighthouses. Some were single family stations and others had two, three or more families, often in very remote locations, many miles, even days from the nearest town.

Hunting Island Light Station, which had three families stationed here, was a day’s travel from Beaufort, making medical emergencies, educating the children, obtaining supplies and mail difficult. The tender (supply vessel) from Charleston visited the station only about once a quarter.

On Saturday, August 7, 2021, we celebrate National Lighthouse Day and honor those dedicated and brave keepers and families that served all of us for more than 200 years.

Theodore Panayotoff is the Lighthouse Director for The Friends of Hunting Island.


The historic lighthouse at Hunting Island State Park is the only publicly accessible lighthouse in South Carolina. The original structure was built in 1859 and rebuilt in 1875 after it was destroyed during the Civil War.

A unique feature of the lighthouse is that it was constructed of interchangeable cast-iron sections so it could be dismantled should it ever need to be moved. Severe beach erosion made it necessary to relocate the lighthouse 1.3 miles inland in 1889.

Hunting Island Lighthouse. Photo by Bob Sofaly.

The lighthouse was closed for repairs in May 2003 when cracks were discovered in several of its cast-iron steps. In a renovation that spanned more than 18 months, construction crews not only repaired the cracks, but installed steel braces beneath them for reinforcement. Left unpainted, the silver-gray braces stand out in sharp contrast to the black cast-iron stairs. The contrast helps distinguish between the original structure and modern improvements, which protect the lighthouse’s historic integrity.

For an admission of $2, visitors can climb the 167 steps and walk around the observation deck for a lofty view of the barrier island and surrounding seascape. Visit https://southcarolinaparks.com/hunting-island/lighthouse for visitation rules and reservation procedures.

– S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism 

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