An Island at Arms
Updated: Oct 17, 2022
Deep within the lushly landscaped confines of a gated Hilton Head Island residential community lie a couple of open acres of waterfront land preserved from all future development. Overlooking the glistening waves of Port Royal Sound and the Atlantic Ocean, the scent of Carolina jessamine in the air, sits the focus of this historic spot: an enormous steam-powered gun once capable of shooting 7-foot-long projectiles more than 3 miles across the deep waters of the Sound.
Ready, Aim, Fire!
By the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the United States was determined to be prepared for any future threats from foreign countries. In order to accomplish this goal, deep-water ports up and down the East Coast would need to be protected. The Lowcountry's own Port Royal Sound fit this profile. The result was a 50-foot-long steam-powered cannon built in late 1901 on a north-end Hilton Head Island bluff--ironically, the exact same plot of land first spotted by Captain William Hilton in 1663 and which gave the island of Hilton Head its name.
Known today as "Steam Gun," this gigantic weapon consisted of two steam engines that powered an electric generator and two air compressors. The cannon itself featured a 15-inch-diameter barrel to propel 7-foot-long, dynamite-loaded projectiles up to 3.25 miles. The gun was fired more than 100 times over the next several weeks, although always for practice. Four months later, the U.S. Army decommissioned the gun, stating it was no longer needed. Steam Gun had experienced a brief but potentially-exciting career.
What the Army Left Behind
Although the U.S. Army partially dismantled its weapon in 1902, the ruins left behind are striking. Gone is the 50-foot-long cannon, but plenty of remnants of the giant gun remain on the site today. Now in a park-like setting within the gated Port Royal Plantation community, the ruins include steam piping and brick boiler rooms (see photos at right and below). You'll also find several historic markers that detail the significance of the spot, both in terms of the gigantic weapon and its location on the original "Hilton's Head" bluff.
The highlight of a visit to Steam Gun, though, is the surviving--though deteriorating--center of the gun station (see photo at top of page). One can easily imagine the mighty cannon still mounted here, with the ribbed notches that controlled the aim of the rotating turret still clearly visible. Sitting on a bluff-top bench near the gun station, beneath the swaying branches of live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, visitors can look across the sparkling waves of Port Royal Sound to islands on the distant shore--islands once reached by the steam gun's practice shots.
You Can't Get There from Here...
Well, you can, but it likely won't be easy. Perhaps part of the intrigue of the Steam Gun site is the complexity of getting there. If you happen to be a guest of a Port Royal Plantation resident, you can visit the site directly on Fort Walker Drive. Most folks, however, will need to access the ruins via the beach. From Folly Field Beach Park, which offers public parking, count on about 6 miles (roundtrip) of walking or biking around the "heel" of shoe-shaped Hilton Head Island. Steam Gun is located about halfway between beach markers 133 and 134. If you get to Fish Haul Creek (which carries strong currents and should not be crossed), you've gone just a smidgen too far.
Try to envision the huge weapon that once stood on this now-peaceful resort island. Imagine its power, and be thankful we never really needed it.