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Charleston’s beacon by the sea

Both long-term residents and newcomers may readily see see the unrelenting change in coastal landscape. Some is gradual; some is swift and dramatic. It seems the latter tends to result from our man-made intrusions. The ocean constantly pushes, pulls and shifts and as we have built our habitation around her, she has a mind of her own.

When I was a young boy, my dad would sometimes take us out to Morris Island on the boat. He would nose up to the beach and walk the anchor up in the sand before we hopped out like buccaneers claiming an unknown land. The sea oats waved in sunlight. A red and white striped lighthouse seemed friendly up ahead. My memories of that time are fleeting but patterned with a sense of wonder that I still feel on the water.

Throughout the years, our visits dropped off without my notice. I didn’t come back until later. The beach at Morris Island has not disappeared, but it has diminished enough to leave its grand tower stranded offshore. And although the island maintains plenty of sand facing the harbor, the curling sandbars before the lighthouse now appear only around low tide.

The Jetties were built at the entrance to Charleston Harbor in 1886 to stabilize the shipping channel and block the southward transport of sediment down the beach. Although the channel deepened as desired, erosion quickly began on either side. Spurs were constructed to the north, which benefited Sullivan’s Island, but funds to build a southern constituent never materialized. This has caused a slight accretion of beach to the north and erosion to the south, severe in some spots. Morris Island is one greatly affected locale.

Morris Island has retained a history of light-giving structures since 1673 when a raised metal pan would sit aflame at night to help ships navigate toward the harbor. In 1767, Mr. Samuel Cardy designed and built the first lighthouse to be 42 feet tall with an octagonal shape. It stood until a taller lighthouse with a revolving light replaced it in 1838. Not long after, this lighthouse was destroyed in 1862 to prevent Union troops from using it as a lookout during the War Between the States.

The present lighthouse was built in 1876 under the same guidelines as the Bodie Island, Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras lighthouses. Its painted bands were originally black and white, but the black paint captured the heat of the sun and has since flaked off to reveal the red brick underneath.

Although the Morris Island Lighthouse was originally constructed 1,200 feet onshore, the ocean slowly drew nearer until the structure was at water’s edge and unable to be manned. Its housing complex was dismantled in 1938 and the lighthouse became automated. Finally, it was decommissioned and replaced by the Sullivan’s Island Light in 1962. It sat vacant without an intended use.

The Coast Guard made plans to demolish the lighthouse in 1965, but local residents and the Preservation Society of Charleston petitioned against it. They saw it as a historical landmark. The society attempted to gain ownership but could not gather the financial resources and the lighthouse was turned over to the GSA (General Services Administration). The lighthouse changed hands a number of times in the private sector, during which time it suffered further erosion, deterioration and neglect. The GSA sold it at auction in 1965 to a private citizen who had plans for a camping ground on Morris Island. One year later, another entrepreneur bought the lighthouse to complement an eventual real estate development on the surrounding high and dry land. There it remained for 30 years until a foreclosure action on the mortgage dumped it in the possession of a reluctant Columbia businessman in 1996.

With the lighthouse again on the market, people began talking in several groups about its future. Seeing an opportunity, organizers came together, including James Island residents Barbara Schoch and Johnny Ohlandt; Ohlandt is a conservationist who has spent his entire life on the water surrounding the lighthouse. He owns Black’s Island, which is situated behind Morris Island and appears connected.

Word spread and pockets of concerned citizens coalesced into a singular entity at first called the Morris Island Lighthouse Committee. It proposed that the Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission (CCPRC) buy the lighthouse. The committee would in turn raise needed funds as a nonprofit foundation and begin the work of preservation.

In November 1998, the committee incorporated as the nonprofit Save the Light, Inc. It had become clear that the Parks and Recreation Commission might not purchase the lighthouse quickly enough to beat other interested parties. So Save the Light, Inc. bought the lighthouse in February 1999 for $75,000 with the simple mission of saving and preserving the Morris Island lighthouse for the people of South Carolina.

Although government ownership seemed symbolically important, it also proved necessary. The Army Corps of Engineers may only work on government owned property or projects. Thus to gain their assistance, the lighthouse needed to be in government hands. The expertise, aid and federal funds from the Corps would be required for initial stabilization and subsequent erosion control.

In December 2000, Save the Light, Inc. transferred the title for the Morris Island Lighthouse to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources through the Heritage Trust program. The act establishing this program gives the DNR the responsibility to preserve important natural and cultural areas of the state. The DNR Board of Directors unanimously voted to accept the title in April of that year. Save the Light, Inc. then signed a 99-year lease for the lighthouse, allowing it to raise funds and coordinate preservation efforts.

The Army Corps of Engineers and other contractors have helped complete Phases I and II of the preservation plan. The immediate goal aimed to stabilize the foundation under the lighthouse. In 2007, Taylor Brothers Marine Construction began building a steel cofferdam around its base and placed stones on the outside to prevent further erosion. Palmetto Gunite Construction Company continued the Phase II project by installing 68 concrete micro-piles to replace the 264 original wooden timber piles under the foundation. They also filled the cofferdam with sand. Collectively Phase I and II cost around $5 million.

Phase III is beginning now and will focus on repairing the interior and exterior of the tower itself. Both individual and corporate donors have joined to help turn this vision into a reality — a vision to restore a worthy part of the past.

I recently attended a wedding at St. Michael’s Church where the priest discussed lighthouses in relation to marriage. Faith in God is the beacon that centers the couple and guides them through life’s challenges together. The light must be active and husband and wife must constantly seek it.

In a similar way, Charleston is married to the sea. More than just a proximal bond, our relationship with the water and landscape stretches back in time and has shaped the way we live in our environment. Although some aspects progress, others stay the same and we cannot afford to let reminders like the Morris Island Light crumble into the ocean. We might risk a serious misunderstanding with our betrothed.

The contents of the past inform the present and future. Let us not be mariners lost at sea, but by preserving our own foundations, captains of a guided ship.

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