Ghost of the Past

The ferry was the only sound piercing the summer night along Haig Point. It sliced its way through the blackness as it maneuvered to the dock on the tip of Daufuskie Island.

Just minutes away by golf cart is Haig Point Lighthouse, marking the channel from Tybee Roads into Calibogue Sound. Perched atop the squat, two-story lighthouse like the eagle’s nest of a ship, it blinks two seconds on, 10 seconds off, flashing a beam from about seven to nearly 10 miles out.

In private hands since 1984 and decommissioned in 1986, the 124-year-old lighthouse today is a charming reminder of another time, when the first lighthouse keeper, Patrick Comer, his wife and paid assistant, Bridget, moved there in August 1873.

The home exudes an old-fashioned charm, from the heart pine floors to the roof’s hand-split cedar shake shingles. Rockers on the white-painted front porch face the Intracoastal Waterway, a hammock swings invitingly between trees, and armoires in the two bedrooms serve as a reminder of a time predating clothes closets.

A few yards away is the wick house, which stores fuel to power the Fresnel light.

“It’s not really an aid to navigation… it’s more for the aesthetics of it – not to be confused with Harbour Town (lighthouse),” says Benny Jones, vice president of construction in charge of the house’s restorations. “It was more of a range light. It was not a true lighthouse that most of them were built for.”

Its mission was to guide captains, navigating the shifting sand shoals, to ports from Savannah to Port Royal. Two separate beacons served as a range for Calibogue Sound.

Ship captains entering the Sound aligned the Haig Point light with a taller back light about a half-mile south. The lighthouse’s small light, located closer to the water, operated on a track system and was hooked to oxen to align the lights with the shifting channels.

The lighthouse, which beamed its first signal October 1, 1873, would be the Comers’ home for 18 years, Patrick Comer died in 1861 in the front upstairs bedroom.

The lighthouse would see three keepers until the Coast Guard decommissioned it in July 1924. After 1939, it stood empty for years, battered by wind and rain, its windows shattered.

“At one time, the whole roof was rotted and falling in,” says Tom Bass, whose Sand Piper Construction Co. on Hilton Head Island helped with the restoration. “There was a fire in the kitchen that almost burned the house down” in the 1960s. “The house has always come back; no matter how down it gets, it always comes back. That’s the spirit of that house.”

Spirit is the operative word. The lighthouse even has a resident ghost named Maggie.

Maggie was Comer’s daughter who caught the eye of a married man from Michigan hired by the Navy to work on the metal lighthouse lights in the Atlantic Ocean off of Charleston, Parris Island and Daufuskie Island.

In his diary, he writes of going to Haig Point one Christmas to see the lighthouse keeper. There, he writes, he had the privilege of seeing one of the sweetest faces he’d ever seen, says Bass.

“He called her Maggie. It was like she was a secret,” a beautiful young woman with, Bass suspects, a mental problem who he thinks was kept hidden by her family.

“What he wrote was just a line or two, but it was so intense that you knew he fell in love with the looks of her or fell in love with her. He wrote in his diary several days later that he couldn’t return. Something happened between him and Maggie.”

Bass saw Maggie’s spectral presence at work while in the parlor with some female workers one day, when he decided to read aloud a passage about Maggie from the diary.

“When I read the diary word for word, Maggie actually went into (one of the women) and spoke” through her about the man from Michigan.

“It was something that this woman wouldn’t have known anything about. It was said in a way that was personal,” and left the female worker upset by the experience, Bass says.

During the eight to nine months of restorations work on the tower, which required removing and entire corner. Maggie again showed herself to Bass.

“We really think that she was hidden a lot of times in the middle tower or that she liked to go to the middle tower… There’s a window in that area and that’s where people have said they see something in the window at night.”

During work on the tower, one worker fell and broke a vertebrae in his back. The next day, a 2-by-4 fell and broke the arm of another man. Spooked, the workers refused to go up there.

“I told these guys I’ve got to explain what’s going on to the ghost. She thought they were going to tear (the lighthouse) down.”

Bass climbed to the middle of the tower, where he sat down and explained things to Maggie.

“I started telling her, Maggie, exactly what we were going to do, step by step, and the reason for it and we had to do it or it would fall down. The next day I convinced them that I had talked to hear and the ghost would not bother them anymore.”

Another time, a female visitor was sipping coffee in the dining room with Bass when “she looked at me and said, ‘there’s a ghost here.’ I looked at her and nodded my head. And from then on it was just amazing the way she was acting and feeling and knowing things” about the lighthouse, Bass says.

There’s a lot to know.

The Island’s name comes from an Indian word meaning sharp feather and Haig Point, on the Island’s northern tip, takes its name from Scottish merchant George Hauge of Charleston. Hauge purchased the land in 1740 and his family owned the land until 1810.

Ownership then fell to John David Mongin. Mongin’s widow, Sarah, built a three-story mansion on the land in 1830 after she remarried. The large tabby mansion was destroyed in 1861 by Union troops who used the timber for a gun support from which to launch an attack on Fort Pulaski to stop the water route to Savannah, according to An Island Named Daufuskie by longtime resident Billie Burns.

Landowners and freedmen began returning in 1866, but the boll weevil and the effects of increasing levels of pollution in the Savannah River upon the oyster beds and fishing grounds dealt a blow to the Island’s economy. In December 1872, the government contracted the building of the 49-foot-high lighthouse. Advanced technology led to the lighthouse’s decommissioning in 1924. Ownership passed through several hands, then remained vacant for a number of years.

When International Paper Realty Corp. of South Carolina bought the property and began restoring the lighthouse – today open only to residents and their guests at the private residential development – they discovered during a search for Indian and other artifacts that it had been built on the foundation of the mansion’s remains, the largest tabby plantation ruin in South Carolina.

Archeological evidence such as marble from Italy, porcelain from China and champagne bottles from France points to a gracious lifestyle at the mansion. Today a glass window in the lighthouse’s kitchen floor provides a glimpse of the mansion’s large cellar and the lighthouse offers a glimpse of an era gone by… perhaps watched over in the tower by a ghostly presence called Maggie.

Article appeared in Lifestyles in the Lowcountry by Kathy Gurchiek, a freelance writer in Savannah, GA.