Hilton Head Myths & Misconceptions: Lighthouse keepers’ cottages and the Great Sea Island Hurricane of 1893

Story by Richard Thomas

Lighthouse keepers’ cottages and the Great Sea Island Hurricane of 1893

The 1893 Sea Islands hurricane was the 7th deadliest hurricane in the United States history, and was one of the three deadly hurricanes during the 1893 Atlantic hurricane season; the storm killed an estimated 1,000–2,000 people, mostly from storm surge.

Since its history began to be catalogued, an interpretation of the effect and devastation of the Great Sea Island Hurricane revolves around the notion that only two buildings on the Island were left standing after the storm. The stone Baynard Mausoleum built in 1846 was one, and the other was the Graham House, now part of Coastal Discovery Museum, built in 1859. The reality was that the decade of the 1890s saw six hurricanes hit Hilton Head in some way. The storms of 1893 and 1898 were particularly devastating, the earlier with storm surge and the later with debris damage.

Another “urban legend” related to the 1893 hurricane has been that in 1971, when the nascent Sea Pines Company ran out of office space and before its new main facility had been built, two old lighthouse-keeper cottages had been moved from their locations in Leamington Plantation to Harbour Town to be used for offices. The “legend” further held that Charles Fraser learned that the HHI Fire Department was going to burn the two structures as a training exercise. Since they were historic buildings, he decided to preserve and move them to Harbour Town. One of the buildings served as the first location for Signe’s Bakery and is again a bakery today. The other has been used as a real estate office and for other purposes after all Sea Pines’ offices were located in the new main building. Another version of the legend stated that one of the keepers’ cottages became, and is today, part of CQ’s restaurant. This is disputed by Sea Pines and may have come about to lend credibility to CQ’s involvement in the well-known ghost story of Hilton Head’s Blue Lady.

Renovators discovered this inscription, written in 1899, on a panel inside of the Harbour Town Bakery & Cafe.

Then, another related legend has it that one of the cottages was moved to HHI from Charleston to replace one damaged by the 1893 hurricane. A photo of a cottage being moved by barge in Charleston harbor was originally thought to be that building, but it was later discovered to be of a keepers’ cottage from the harbor in Georgetown being moved to Charleston.

A panel, discovered recently in the renovation of the bakery building in Harbour Town, has an inscription that indicates a crew member on the lighthouse tender Pharos wrote on the wall of the cottage in 1899. More recent research has found that the two Hilton Head keepers’ cottages were built on HHI in or about 1880 under a master contractor agreement with the Lighthouse Service. So if the cottages were built on HHI in 1880, they must have survived the Great Sea Island Hurricane, meaning that at least four buildings seem to have been able to withstand the damage of that epic storm.


Read more Hilton Head Island history here

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