Meet the man behind Hilton Head's iconic lighthouse

Typography

standingguardCan you imagine the symbol of our island, the iconic, octagonal Hilton Head Lighthouse at Harbour Town, painted a different color than the bright, candy-cane red and white we all know and love?

“Charles Fraser would roll over in his grave if he had seen it a few years ago when it looked like a more burnished red,” said William B. Whalley, chuckling.

“Charles always knew what he wanted, and he wanted it to be a bright red, not a subdued red.”

Whalley should know. He is one of the people who helped build the towering structure overlooking the island at Calibogue Sound.

Through Whalley’s family, the lighthouse, in its own roundabout way, has royal connections.

In 1898, Whalley’s grandfather, R.J. Whalley, who knew Queen Victoria, was the contractor for an octagonal tower built in honor of the Queen’s Jubilee. On the moors in Darwen in Lancashire, England, stands Darwen Tower – also known as the Jubilee Tower -- a majestic spectacle of engineering completed in 1898. It appears to stand guard over the area, just as the Hilton Head Lighthouse stands guard over the island.

R.J. Whalley immigrated to America in 1913, eventually ending up in Savannah, where he founded the R.J. Whalley Company in 1920.

The business was later operated under the name of Whalley Construction Co. and remained in business for 72 years until December 1992, when his grandson, William B. Whalley, retired and closed the business.

In the late 1960s, William B. Whalley and his brother, John, were enlisted to do the structural work on the lighthouse by our own royalty, Charles Fraser, the founding father of modern-day Hilton Head Island.

“We had done structural work for a school being built in Hinesville (the town where, coincidentally, Charles Fraser was born),” said William Whalley, 85. “Charles said he was interested in doing some buildings in a ‘little fishing village.’ ”

Little did Whalley know at the time that one of the “little buildings” would be the Hilton Head Island Lighthouse, today a recognizable state symbol.

“Charles took me out there in a jeep,” said Whalley. “There were only dirt roads at the time, and he told me what his vision was. I thought it was crazy!”

That was mostly due to the timing. In 1969 Fraser had convinced the PGA Tour to start the Heritage Golf Tournament at Sea Pines.

The main goal was to get the clubhouse built at Sea Pines in preparation for the first Heritage on Thanksgiving weekend in 1969.

“The lighthouse was secondary because the clubhouse took precedence,” said Whalley. “We worked seven days a week and built that clubhouse in four-and-a-half months! We felt we really accomplished something and never really thought about the lighthouse.”

But the lighthouse came to mean a lot to Charles and his wife, Mary, who had traveled to the Bahamas looking at lighthouses.

“Charles was very astute and he knew what he wanted,” said Whalley. “He wanted something different, something that would leave a real mark on Harbour Town.”

In a nice symmetry that harkened back to Darwen Tower, Charles Fraser wanted an octagon shape with a distinctive design and colors.

At the time of the first Heritage, the lighthouse was a skeleton, and it wasn’t an easy feat to get it built.

“Most of the materials came by boat from Savannah,” said Whalley.

Once the lighthouse was complete in 1970 – at an unbelievable cost of $278,000 – it became known as “Fraser’s Folly.” After all, it wasn’t intended as a navigational lighthouse.

Since then, however, every time the cameras at the Heritage pan to the lighthouse, people know it’s Hilton Head Island’s symbol.

“It really is the most recognizable symbol on the East Coast,” said Whalley.

The Harbour Town Lighthouse is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. seven days a week. Within the lighthouse are displays on each of the nine landings describing the history of the island. The top of the lighthouse has panoramic views of Calibogue Sound, Daufuskie Island and Hilton Head Island and a webcam to wave to friends and family at home.

For more information, call 843-671-2810 or visit harbourtownlighthouse.com.

standingguard02Facts about the Hilton Head Island Lighthouse structure:

  • The main structural steel frame is an octagon shape (a polygon of eight angles and eight sides).
  • It is 93 feet high from the roof peak to the concrete first floor, which is constructed at an elevation of 9.5 feet.
  • There are 114 steps to the top.
  • The dimension across each exterior octagon side is 20 feet and 5 inches.
  • The foundation for the structure is a 6-foot wide octagon shaped continuous reinforced concrete grade beam footing by 8-feet deep, supported on the soil below. There is no piling.
  • The structural steel columns are 3 ½ inches in diameter standard steel pipes, with 2-inch diameter steel pipes being used from the tower light floor (77 feet above the base concrete first floor) to the roof eaves located at 9 feet 2 inches above the tower light floor).
  • The exterior skin is painted stucco attached to metal lath and felt, which is attached to 1-inch-by-3-inch treated wood furring strips attached to ¾ inch plywood sheathing.