The lighthouses of Charleston have intrigued visitors and locals alike for years. You have to admit it, there’s something so charming and endearing about a lighthouse. More than a beacon for sailors, lighthouses fill folks with awe and wonder — whose paths have they lit?
Charleston is home to two historic lighthouses: the Morris Island Lighthouse and the Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse. Here are their stories.
Morris Island Lighthouse
We love lighthouses so much so that we find ourselves fighting to save them, as many Charlestonians have done with the Morris Island Lighthouse — a much beloved part of the Holy City’s history.
Though every lighthouse that has stood on the island survived the elements, they were defenseless against other forces like the Civil War. The lighthouse you can still see today, accessible via Folly Beach, was constructed in 1873. But a lot has changed since then. The lighthouse is no longer active, although in 2016 it was lit momentarily to mark the 140th anniversary of its first lighting in 1876.
Once upon a time, Morris Island was once made up of three islands. But erosion eventually led to the three becoming one, large singular island, which you can see today. The lighthouse was originally surrounded by 1,200 feet of shore but by 1938 it had reached the water’s edge. Due to erosion and the constant changes to the Folly Beach coastline, it’s now in the middle of the water, accessible only by boat at low tide.
Save the Light: In 2007, an organization was formed called Save the Light. Its mission? To preserve the decaying Morris Island Lighthouse, a cause many locals feel passionately about. After all, it’s become a part of our landscape. After a year, stabilization for the structure was achieved, with the first phase of the operation costing a cool $3 million. Now in phase three, the lighthouse is sure to stay a cherished part of Charleston’s history thanks to the valiant efforts of SaveTheLight.org.
Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse
The lighthouse on Sullivan’s Island was put there by the U.S. government back in the 1960s. Designed by a triangle obsessive named Jack Graham, the lighthouse itself is shaped like a triangle — with one of its points aimed at the ocean, which allows it to withstand 125 mph winds. On January 7, 2009 a 74-year-old Graham, and his wife, ventured up to the top of the lighthouse for one last look.
The first time they saw the light of the lighthouse was in 1962. Inside, lighthouse keepers enjoy modern conveniences like AC and an elevator (it takes 74 seconds to reach the top!). But the lantern room at the tip-top must be accessed via another trip up a 25-foot ladder.
When first activated, the lighthouse featured a terrific 28-million candlepower light made possible by carbon arc lamps ($900 a pop), and it was the second brightest light in the western hemisphere! Lighthouse keepers had to adorn asbestos welding suits when accessing the lantern room. Due to annoyed neighbors, the light was downgraded eventually to barely over a million candlepower.
Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse is still in beautiful working order today and is visible from 26 miles.
The lighthouses of Charleston may (for some) be reason enough to visit our coast, but for most of us they are everyday beacons, iconic symbols that add to the allure and history of our town. They stand tall, watching over this magical place we call home.