Vessels traveling south along the southeastern coastline of the United States often travel precariously close to shore to prevent being pushed northward by the current of the Gulf Stream, which moves in a northeastern direction not far off shore. Traveling so close to the shoreline, vessels were being lost due to the number of shoals and shallows located close to shore and that extend out from the capes located along this region. Cape Romain is one of the places where shoals lie just below the surface of the water. These shoals reach nine miles out into the Atlantic and as shipping increased in this area, more and more ships were being lost on these shoals.
In an effort to warn sailors of these shoals, a light station was established on the cape. The government contracted Winslow Lewis to construct the lighthouse at a cost of $7,500. The conical brick tower was completed in 1827 and stood sixty-five feet high. A lamp and reflector system that Lewis designed himself was placed in the lantern room at an additional cost of $9,500. This lighting system, combined with the height of the tower, allowed the tower's light to be seen for eighteen miles at sea.
Once the light was operational, it wasn’t long before it was realized that the light was ineffective. Mariners complained that the light could not be seen in time to avoid the shoals and shipwrecks continued to occur. The Lewis lamp system remained in use until 1847 when it was replaced by twelve whale-oil lamps whose light would be intensified by a parabolic mirror in hopes of improving the ability of the light. This lighting system also proved to be ineffective. In 1851, an official report deemed the light to have fourth-order classification, and it was determined that a new tower was needed.
In 1857, the new tower was completed, but was build out of plumb. Built mostly by slave labor, the octagonal brick tower soared 150 feet in height. The tower was fitted with an impressive first-order Fresnel lens, which easily cast the towers light nineteen miles seaward, and was first seen on January 1, 1858. This new beacon was quite effective, and the numbers of shipwrecks were dramatically reduced.
1861 brought the ravages of the Civil War to the cape. Confederate soldiers removed the lens and damaged the tower, attempting to keep it from being used by the Union army. The lighthouse remained dark until the end of the war. It was repaired and returned to service in 1866. By this time, the foundation of the tower had settled, making the lean of the tower evermore noticeable. The lean was so bad that the lens had to be taken apart and reseated so that it would work properly.
In 1931, the Fresnel lens was removed from the tower, and a smaller, rotating bull's-eve lens was installed in the lantern room. Six years later, in 1937, the tower was automated. Ten years later, in 1947, the tower was deemed unnecessary, and was decommissioned when buoys began marking the shoals (to see a vintage photo of the lights, click here).
Today, both lighthouses still remain and are located in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, specifically on what is known as Lighthouse Island. At first glance, the lighthouses look to be in good condition, but that is not the case. For more on the condition on the towers, see the events of the two visits below.
To visit the Cape Romain Lighthouses, stop in at the Sewee Visitor & Environmental Education Center, located at 5821 Highway 17 North, Awendaw, SC and ask to put your name on the waiting list. Tours are offered only twice a year (fall & spring) and the list is usually quite long. Personal watercraft can be taken out to the island, but the area is hard to navigate if you are not familiar with the area. The main advantage to going with the tour group is that the lighthouse is opened and visitors are allowed to climb the 1857 tower. These lighthouses are a must see and this trip is an adventure that you won't forget!