One of the oldest lighthouses in the nation has been bought by a non-profit group that intends to save Charleston, S.C.'s most visible symbol of the city's extensive and proud maritime history. The first lighthouse on Morris Island, near Charleston's Folly Beach was commissioned by King George III in 1767. That lighthouse was destroyed during the Civil War in 1861, near the same time that the first submarine to be used in warfare, the Hunley, sank in the same Charleston Harbor.
Work is now underway to raise the Hunley and repair the Morris Island Light. As recently as thirty years ago, the Morris Island Light was a working lighthouse on an island that boasted a keeper's station. A family was living in the station and manning the light. But erosion has completely destroyed the island and the keeper's station. The lighthouse stands as a National Historic Landmark, a sentinel whose base is buffeted by the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. A sentinel that even withstood the 140 mile an hour winds of Hurricane Hugo that devastated Charleston in 1989.
Directly across the harbor from the Morris Island Light, the Sullivan's Island Light stands proud and tall. Perhaps the newest operating light on the east coast, it has an elevator and its lantern room beam can be seen up to 26 nautical miles at sea, making it one of the brightest lights in the Western Hemisphere.
The Morris Island Lighthouse has been purchased by a non-profit group called " Save the Light" for $75,000 from a logger, Paul Gunter. The bank note to purchase the light is guaranteed by Robert New, a former Charleston School Board member and resident of Folly Beach, and by Jim Booth, a local artist who has painted the lighthouse on numerous occasions.
"This is the first time that the public, the people of South Carolina, have owned a lighthouse, and it's going to take everyone's donations to preserve it," said Booth. Of course, similar purchases of lighthouses have been made in Maine and other states.
A study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will probably deal with the lighthouse's most serious problem, its submerged foundation. A preliminary estimate by the Corps shows that repairs could cost between $1 million and $1.5 million.
Rep. Lynn Seithel, (R-James Island, S.C.), is seeking $1 million from the state's budget for the repairs. She is trying to get the S.C. Department of Natural Resources to take title to the lighthouse. "Save the Light" wants to convey the property to the state.
"It is appropriate," said Seithel, "It's in state waters, and I think it's a historical landmark to the state."
However, the S.C. legislature must be convinced. State Rep. John Graham Altman III has voiced his support.
Before the state takes title, the Army corps will conduct a thorough engineering study that should take about six months and cost $100,000. Any plan to repair the lighthouse would have to be cleared through environmental agencies and the Army Corps could pay about 65% of the cost.
The lighthouse needs to be surveyed to see if it is vertical, as sometimes as much as 10 feet of water cover the base. Most people are very encouraged by how well the lighthouse survived Hurricane Hugo.
"Save the Light" is a grass-roots organization based mostly on James Island and Folly Beach. It sprang into being several years ago when the lighthouse went up for auction.
"To me, the most important thing is we never gave up," said Barbara Schoch, a James Island resident who helped form the organization with Johnnie Ohlandt, who owns an island near the Morris Island Light.
The organization hopes to raise as much as $1 million in private donations to refurbish the structure which has been vandalized by trespassers who come by boat. There is no land access to the lighthouse. The structure has no doors or windows. The masonry is cracked and needs painting. Recently, the Cape Hatteras Light was painted at a cost of $150,000 to $200,000.
Supporters may also want to develop a viewing point on the former Coast Guard base now owned by Charleston County Parks and Recreation. That is the best vantage point for viewing the lighthouse. There are no plans to turn the light back on. However, a museum that would give Charleston Harbor history including the lighthouse's role in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars might prove an interesting tourist attraction, particularly if it were combined with the raised Hunley and information about the submarine. It is something for the state and the city of Charleston to consider.
This story appeared in the
April 1999 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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