July 2020

History and Mystery at Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort: Must-See Historic Lighthouse gets a makeover

Author: Linda S. Hopkins

Attention history buffs, lighthouse followers, and ghostbusters. Whether you are a local resident looking for something different to do or a vacation visitor coming off the beach or golf course, why not add a little history and mystery to your plans for the day by visiting Hilton Head Island’s only true lighthouse? The Hilton Head Rear Range Lighthouse (also known as the Leamington Lighthouse) is not only a charming, but is significant as one of the few surviving lighthouses in South Carolina.

History lesson
Located in the Leamington neighborhood of Palmetto Dunes, the distinctive structure, overlooking the resort’s award-winning Arthur Hills Golf Course, was built between 1879 and 1880 as part of a larger system of navigation lights guiding ships into Port Royal Sound. Congress authorized $40,000 for the construction of the complex.

A cast-iron skeleton tower built about a mile inland on six concrete piers, the 94-foot-tall lighthouse was activated on August 1, 1881. Light from the structure was visible from 15 miles away.

Featured on the National Register of Historic Places and part of the Inventory of Historic Light Stations, the lighthouse occupies a unique place in Hilton Head Island history. One of only a handful of surviving lighthouses in South Carolina, the Hilton Head Rear Range Lighthouse is Hilton Head Island’s only historic lighthouse.

The lighthouse, which originally included a wooden exterior, was deactivated in 1932. During World War II, however, the structure served as an important lookout tower for enemy ships and anchored Camp McDougal, a network of U.S. Marine temporary barracks and ammunition sheds. Gun emplacements and searchlights were established on the nearby beach. Marines were taught to use naval guns, called “Big Betsy,” as well as .30- and .50-caliber machine guns, and practiced firing these weapons into the Atlantic.

The original lighthouse complex included a keeper’s house and a shorter forward beacon that was mounted on a second keeper’s house near the beach. By positioning their ships so that the two beacons were vertically aligned, sailors entering Port Royal Sound would know that their vessels were in the proper channel.

Today, only the rear lighthouse survives, along with a vintage brick oil house and a water cistern located on site alongside one of the oldest living oak trees on Hilton Head Island. Sheltered by towering pine trees, the main lighthouse structure, which is now inactive, includes a central cylindrical stair tower, a wooden watch room and a cypress lantern room. Lighthouse Keepers would climb 112 steps to reach the hexagonal watch room.

The makeover
In 1985, Greenwood Communities and Resorts, the parent company of Palmetto Dunes, refurbished the lighthouse, cistern, and oil house, installing a decorative sodium vapor optic, and opened the grounds to the public. On December 12, 1985, the Hilton Head Rear Range Lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places and has served as a popular Palmetto Dunes landmark and visitor destination ever since.

Now, the Hilton Head Rear Range Lighthouse has been renovated again, including the addition of a new stained cedar shingle roof, replacement of 360-degree observation deck boards and structural wood areas, cleaning and treating of the interior, cleaning of the exterior structure, and painting with an oil-based, marine-grade paint. In addition, the windows and doors were replaced and painted in a “Charleston Green,” while overgrown foliage around the lighthouse was removed, and more.

“We are pleased with the recent renovation and improvements to the historic Hilton Head Rear Range Lighthouse and excited to welcome visitors to see the completed project,” said Palmetto Dunes Chief Operating Officer Brad Marra. “We’re also excited to share the recent tree survey information on one of the oldest oak trees on Hilton Head Island that is adjacent to the lighthouse.”

The Leamington Lighthouse Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) stands close to the Hilton Head Rear Range Lighthouse and provides a magnificent backdrop for the fifteenth green of the Arthur Hills Golf Course. The tree stands approximately 70 feet tall and has a canopy that spreads across 150 feet. With a diameter of about nine feet, calculations estimate the age of the tree to be between 435 to 450 years old (survey report 2019), recognizing it as one of Hilton Head Island’s oldest living trees.

The mystery
But what’s a lighthouse without a resident ghost? A number of interesting stories and legends surround this historic lighthouse, the most famous being the legend of the Blue Lady. Like any good ghost story, this one begins on a dark and stormy night and ends with bumps in the night.

In 1898, long before the Weather Channel or evacuation routes existed, without warning, a powerful hurricane hammered Hilton Head Island. Lighthouse keeper Adam Fripp struggled through the blustery wind and rain to get to the lighthouse in Palmetto Dunes to leave the light on for any ships that might need guidance.

In a driving rain, Fripp made his way to the oil house, and then to the tower and up the spiral staircase. Just as he reached the top, a powerful gust of wind shattered one of the glass panes in the lantern room. The strain of the ascent coupled with the shock of the exploding glass was more than Fripp’s heart could handle. Hours later, his daughter Caroline noticed her father’s prolonged absence and went in search of him.

Wearing a long blue dress, Caroline climbed the tower where she discovered her dying father. Fripp implored his daughter to “keep the light burning no matter how dangerous the storm.” Faithful to her father’s final wish, Caroline sloshed through hip-deep water to replenish the lamps with oil. She managed to tend the light throughout the storm, but her sorrow and exhaustion proved too much, as she died shortly thereafter. Since that time, sightings of a girl in a blue dress near the tall skeletal tower have been reported on stormy nights.

So beware, the next time you visit the Leamington Lighthouse. You might just meet the ghost of Caroline Fripp, a spirit that awakens with the sound of wind and rain!

See it for yourself
Guests who wish to visit the lighthouse should enter Palmetto Dunes and proceed to the resort’s South Gate, where they can request a guest pass. Proceed to the Leamington gate and turn left onto Leamington Lane to the lighthouse, then park along the roadside. The Lighthouse area is also one of numerous popular wedding venues in Palmetto Dunes and is available for small private events. The lighthouse is not open for visitors to view inside or to climb to the top.

For historical photos and documents, an extensive history and information on visiting the Hilton Head’s Rear Range Lighthouse in Palmetto Dunes, visit hiltonheadlighthouse.com and/or, follow on Facebook @ thehiltonheadlighthouse.

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