150th-anniversary shines bright beacon on Hunting Island light house

On a chilly Saturday morning at Hunting Island State Park, 9-year-old Brad Stenzi stood looking up at a 150-year-old piece of Beaufort County history.

On vacation from Ohio, the Stenzis were one of many families to visit the park during the four-day, 150th anniversary celebration of Hunting Island's historic lighthouse.

Like many parents, John Stenzi found himself preparing his son for the 167-step ascent up the lighthouse's cast-iron spiral staircase to the circular catwalk atop the 170-foot tall beacon.

"You sure you're ready for this?" John Stenzi asked.

"Let's do it," his son replied with a smile, offering his dad a reassuring high five.

Originally built in 1859 to warn vessels away from the sandbars, wrecks and treacherous currents along the area's coastline, the lighthouse is a chance for the park visitors to experience the area's rich nautical history first-hand, said Jeff Atkins, the park's manager.

"It's really a chance to step back in time and see what it might have been like to live on a remote barrier island in the late 1800s," Atkins said. "It was a time before GPS and all of the navigation devices we have today. People had to use stars and handmade charts to find their way."

The original lighthouse was destroyed by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War to prevent the Union Navy from using it for navigation. It was rebuilt in 1875 for $102,000. Once situated 1.3 miles from the shoreline, the lighthouse now sits less than 200 yards from the surf and is the only one of the eight remaining light stations in the state open to the public.

The weekend's festivities, which conclude today, is a fitting tribute for a such an important Lowcountry icon, said Bonnie Wright, president of Friends of Hunting Island.

"This is a milestone, once-in-a-lifetime historical event for an important landmark in this community so we really wanted to share this with the entire community," Wright said.

After 15 minutes, the Stenzis returned after their trip to the top of the lighthouse. Brad wore a wide grin.

"It was pretty fun and pretty high," Brad said. "You definitely don't want to look down."

John Stenzi said the historical significance of the lighthouse may have been lost on his son and many of the other children visiting the park Saturday.

"I don't think the kids understand the history or why it's important," John Stenzi said. "To them, it's just something tall that they're allowed to go to the top of-- if they're brave enough."