The OTHER Hilton Head Lighthouse
For several days last week, the Goodyear Blimp hovered over my little Sea Island. If you happened to be watching national television coverage of the RBC Heritage golf tournament, you were treated to repeated aerial views of Hilton Head Island's Harbour Town Golf Links course, bounded by the waters of Calibogue Sound and hundreds of enthusiastic golf fans. Always somewhere in the shot, though, was the iconic red-and-white striped Harbour Town Lighthouse. Even if you've never been to the Lowcountry, you've likely seen this picture-perfect structure on postcards, T-shirts, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, and more. It's THE Hilton Head lighthouse, right? Or is it?
Many folks aren't aware that the famous Harbour Town Lighthouse, built in 1969 as a memorable landmark of the then-new Sea Pines resort development, has never served as a functioning navigational aid. Sometimes referred to as a "faux lighthouse," the 93-foot-tall tower features historical exhibits, a gift shop, and 110 steps leading to an observation deck with incredible views of the surrounding community, Calibogue Sound, and neighboring islands. Those sailing into the harbor undoubtedly see the distinctively-striped structure, but its lights are for effect only. Nevertheless, there is an authentic historic lighthouse on Hilton Head Island, hiding in plain sight.
The REAL Lighthouse
Tucked between the 5th and 15th holes of the Arthur Hills Golf Course in the Palmetto Dunes Resort stands an unexpected 92-foot-tall structure (nearly identical in height to the Harbour Town building). A stark cylindrical stair tower, surrounded by a scaffold-like skeleton of metal beams, is topped by an enclosed Watch Room and lantern. Nearby, in the shade of ancient live oaks, stand a vintage brick oil house and a water cistern. While not as colorful--or well-known--as the red-and-white icon, this lighthouse is featured on the National Register of Historic Places and the Inventory of Historic Light Stations and is one of only a handful of surviving lighthouses in South Carolina. It's the real thing.
I first became aware of the Leamington Light (pictured above, with a scale model at left) while researching my novel, The Sea Island's Secret, in which (spoiler alert!) this true lighthouse plays a significant role. Officially referred to as the Hilton Head Rear Range Light, it was built circa 1880 as part of a larger system of navigational lights that helped guide ships long before the days of GPS. At that time, the Leamington Light--situated about a mile inland from the Atlantic Ocean--worked as half of a pair of lighthouses on the island, with the smaller Front Range Light (only 35-feet high) placed nearer the shoreline. The light from the Rear Range structure was visible from 15 miles away from 1880 until it was deactivated in 1932.
The Blue Lady
Oh, and did I mention that the Leamington Light is haunted? Legend tells of young Caroline Fripp, who lived with her lighthouse keeper father at the light in the late 1800s. When a powerful hurricane hit Hilton Head Island in 1898, Caroline's father worked so tirelessly to keep his lantern lit that he had a fatal heart attack. His dying words to his daughter were to keep the lamp lit for the safety of others. She kept her promise, repeatedly climbing the lighthouse tower in the coming days and refusing to change from the blue dress she had been wearing when her father died. They say she herself died soon after, insisting on being buried in that same blue dress. Even now, when stormy weather hits Hilton Head, folks report seeing a woman in blue pacing outside the Leamington Light, still keeping her promise to her beloved father. Ironically, the lighthouse keeper's cottage, where Caroline and her father lived, has been relocated to the Harbour Town area--within sight of the striped lighthouse that has come to symbolize Hilton Head Island.
If you'd like to spot the Blue Lady, or just visit this real Hilton Head Lighthouse, head to Palmetto Dunes Resort. Explain nicely to the security guards that you'd like to check out the Leamington Light on Leamington Lane. They might just give you a pass to enter and see for yourself.