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 Morris Island, SC    
Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.
Description: The lighthouses that have stood on Morris Island have proven quite capable of withstanding everything that nature could throw at them – storms, hurricanes, and even earthquakes. However, the hand of man has had a devastating effect on the lighthouses. The island’s lighthouse was destroyed during the Civil War, and unless Save the Light, Inc. succeeds in saving the current Morris Island Lighthouse, man will be responsible for its demise too.

Charleston Lighthouse after its destruction in 1861
Photograph courtesy National Archives
The first settlement in the area of present day Charleston was made in 1670. At that time, two channels led to the harbor. One ran east along Sullivan’s Island and the second ran south along what is now known as Morris Island. Before the 1800s, Morris Island was actually three separate islands. The northernmost was called Cummings Island, the central was called Morrison’s Island, and the southernmost was known as Middle Bay Island. When the inlets that separated the islands silted in, the resulting large island became known as Morris Island.

In 1673, early settlers established the first navigational aid on what would become Morris Island. The crude light consisted of a “fier” ball of oakum and pitch that was elevated in an open iron basket. Eventually, his Majesty King George III ordered the construction of a formal lighthouse, and accordingly the cornerstone for the structure was laid on May 30, 1767.

The tower rose forty-three feet and served well, until it was darkened for a period during the Revolutionary War. After the war, one of the first acts of the new Congress was to establish the Lighthouse Service, which took control of all existing navigational aids. The South Carolina Legislature thus transferred the Charleston Lighthouse along with 565 acres on Middle Bay Island to the federal government. Using a $5,000 appropriation granted on May 7, 1800, improvements were made to Charleston Lighthouse. The following November, the superintendent of lighthouses announced that the lighthouse had been rebuild and that the stone and brick structure had been equipped with an iron lantern covered with copper. In 1816, the lantern stood eighty-five feet above the sea, and the light was changed on the first of November of that year from fixed to revolving to distinguish it from Georgetown Lighthouse.

In 1855, Captain Daniel P. Woodbury recommended that $11,000 be allocated for installing a first-order Fresnel lens atop Morris Island Lighthouse along with $4,000 for a dwelling to replace the current one that was "very old, and not fit to live in." Congress appropriated $15,000 on August 18, 1856 for the lens and dwelling, and a fixed, second-order Fresnel lens was activated atop the lighthouse on January 1, 1858, taking the place of the old revolving apparatus. At that time, the tower was listed as 110 feet tall, and the light had a focal plane of 133 feet above. The light from a fourth-order fixed lens was exhibited from a scaffold outside the southeast face of the lighthouse starting on November 20, 1857 and continuing in use while the second-order lens was being assembled inside the lantern room. This temporary light had a focal plane of ninety feet.

Morris Island Lighthouse with dwelling
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
When South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union in December of 1860, it took control of all the lights on its coastline and towed the Rattlesnake Shoal Lightship into Charleston Harbor. The lens was removed from Morris Island Lighthouse, and the tower was converted into an observation post. Just a few months later, in April of 1861, shots were fired at Fort Sumter, located just north of the lighthouse at the entrance to the harbor, and the war was underway. The Confederates were able to hold onto Charleston for most of the war, but during the course of the conflict, much of the city was burned or blown up, and Morris Island Lighthouse was destroyed. According to a newspaper account, the lighthouse was "blown up by order of the rebel military authorities" on December 25, 1861.

Many of the southern lights were quickly rebuilt or repaired and returned to service following the war. However, it wasn’t until March 3, 1873 that $60,000 was appropriated to commence the rebuilding of the coastal light on Morris Island. A set of range lights went into service on Morris Island in 1871 to guide mariners over the bar in the main shipping channel, replacing beacon lights that had stood on the island prior to the war.

To provide a proper foundation for the new Morris Island Lighthouse, over two hundred wooden piles, spaced three feet apart, were driven into the sand and cut off below water level. Atop the piles, a grillage made up of two layers of twelve-inch-square timbers laid at right angles was placed. The space between the grillage timbers was filled with cement to form a foundation that had a diameter of thirty-six feet. This sizable foundation was necessary to support the brick tower, which would rise over 150 feet into the air and weigh close to 4,000 tons.

By the end of June 1874, seventy-nine of the piles had been driven, but work had to be suspended due to the unhealthiness of the climate during the summer months. An additional $60,000 was provided by Congress on June 23, 1874, which allowed work to resume in November. By the summer of 1875, the foundation was complete, and all of the metalwork had been delivered to the site save for a small portion that was lost by the sinking of a lighter and was being duplicated by the contractor.

On March 3, 1875, Congress provided $30,000 for completing the lighthouse, bringing the total funding for the project to $150,000. Work on the brick tower began in October 1875, and by the following summer it was complete, and the first-order Fresnel lens had been installed. A three-story dwelling was built for the keepers, and the light from the tower's lens was activated on October 1, 1876. The tower was built using the same plans as Bodie Island Lighthouse and was painted with the same daymark: alternating black and white horizontal bands, three of each color, starting with black at the lantern room and watchroom.

A year after the completion of the 1876 Morris Island Lighthouse, Charleston petitioned Congress for funds to construct jetties at the entrance to its harbor. The channel at that time was only twelve feet deep, and it was hoped that the jetties would constrict the harbor’s outflow and scour out a channel with a greater depth. Over the next thirteen years, the jetties slowly grew to a length of just under three miles. The jetties succeeded in deepening the main channel, but they also altered the sand transport patterns at the entrance to the harbor. Even before the completion of the jetties, it was evident that both Sullivan’s Island and Morris Island were losing large amounts of sand. To counter the erosion of the islands, plans were drawn up for spurs to be extended from both the northern and southern jetty. Two spurs were added to the northern jetty, providing protection for Sullivan’s Island, but those planned for the southern jetty were never completed. Morris Island thus continued to slowly dissolve. In 1880, the lighthouse stood 2,700 feet from the water. By 1938, the lighthouse was at the water’s edge, and today the lighthouse is its own island, roughly 1,600 feet offshore.

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Before erosion had washed away the tower’s buffer zone, other forces of nature tested the integrity of the lighthouse. First, in 1885, a powerful hurricane, packing winds in excess of 125 miles per hour, struck the Charleston area. The storm claimed twenty-one lives in Charleston, and destroyed the rear beacon on Morris Island and overturned the boathouse. Then just a year later, an earthquake struck. The quake destroyed several structures in Charleston, including two churches, and killed around 100 people. Morris Island Lighthouse was cracked in two places, and the giant lens was displaced and a piece was broken out of it.

Keeper John Wieking noted that it was 9:53 p.m. on August 31 when he left the house to climb the tower for his watch. While he had the doorknob at the house in his hand, he heard a rumbling sound and felt the earth first tremble and then start tearing and jerking. The wire net around the lantern room and other metalwork made a great noise as the tower shook and trembled terribly. The station's horses and cows were frightened greatly and ran about.

In 1884, the illuminant for the light was changed from lard oil to mineral oil, and in 1890 a brick oil house, capable of holding 504 five-gallon oil cans was built. Under an appropriation for national defense made in 1898, the station was connected to Charleston by telephone and supplied with marine glasses and international signaling flags.

As the land surrounding the lighthouse disappeared, it became apparent that the tower would have to be automated. The large keepers’ dwelling was sold, then dismantled and removed from the island. The other remaining structures were razed before the water could wash them away. Finally, the lens was removed from the tower and replaced by a modern optic on June 22, 1938, and an sixty-eight-foot interlocking steel sheet cylinder was driven around the base of the tower.

In 1956, the Coast Guard announced plans to construct a modern tower on stable Sullivan’s Island and deactivate Morris Island Lighthouse, which was now standing offshore. The new tower was completed in 1962, and Morris Island Lighthouse fell dark. At one time the Coast Guard had plans to tear down the old tower, but locals protested, and the structure survived.

The tower along with 421 acres of submerged land and 140 acres of Morris Island were auctioned off in September 1965, and John Preston Richardson became the owner of the lighthouse for the sum of $3,303.03. St. Elmo Felkel subsequently purchased the tower in 1966 for $25,000. Thirty years later, Paul Gunter acquired the tower and eighty acres of submerged land in a foreclosure sale against Felkel. Gunter soon announced his intention to sell the lighthouse for $100,000. Not wanting to see the lighthouse fall into the hands of yet another developer, Save the Light, Inc. was quickly formed and purchased the tower for $75,000 in 1999. Save the Light sold the lighthouse for $1 in 2000 to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, who then leased the light back to preservation group. This move will permit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to work towards stabilizing the lighthouse.

During a two-week period in 2002, from May 24th to June 9th, Morris Island Lighthouse was lit once again. Floodlights were installed underneath the walkway atop the tower, and the tower was alternately bathed in white, red, green, blue and purple light. The project was carried out by artist Kim Sooja, as part of the Spoleto Festival held annually in Charleston. The artistic display brought national attention to the endangered lighthouse.

In 2008, the first phase of a restoration plan was completed. The work included the installation of a cofferdam that was sunk thirty feet beneath the seabed and projects about fifteen feet above the water at low tide. The interlocking, Z-shaped beams are protected by riprap that prevents the current from scouring out the sand beneath the cofferdam. The next phase of the project, which included jet-grouting the foundation, filling the inside of the cofferdam with sand and a concrete cap, and installing new concrete piles under the foundation, was completed in 2010.

Head Keepers: Thomas Hollingsby (1790 – at least 1796), John Calhoon (1806 – at least 1823), St. Loe Mellichamp (1830 – 1856), William A. Mellichamp (1856 – 1857), George Wood (1857 – 1861), George W. Williams (1876 – 1878), Gustavus B. Thompson (1878 – 1885), John Wieking (1885 – 1912), Charles L. Sisson (1912), Lewis Holburn Bringloe (1913 – at least 1930), William A. Hecker (1935 - 1938).

Photo Gallery: 1 2 3

References

  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. "Morris Island Lighthouse," Douglas W. Bostick, The Keeper's Log, Fall 2001.
  3. Save the Light website.

Location: Located off the northeastern end of Folly Island, southeast of Charleston.
Latitude: 32.69534
Longitude: -79.88364

For a larger map of Morris Island Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: From Charleston, take Highway 171 south to Folly Island and the town of Folly Beach. In Folly Beach, turn left at the second traffic signal onto Ashley Street, and follow it to the road barricade. After parking your vehicle, you can continue on foot about 0.5 miles to the tip of the island from where you will be able to see the lighthouse out in the water.

Absolute Reel Screamer Charters offers a Dolphin/Lighthouse Tour that will get you a good view of the lighthouse. Other options include Sandlapper Tours and Tideline Tours.

The lighthouse is owned by the State of South Carolina. Grounds open, tower closed.

Find the closest hotels to Morris Island Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
The metal skeleton from the first-order Fresnel lens that once filled the lantern room atop the Morris Island Lighthouse can be seen at the Hunting Island Lighthouse. Unfortunately, several small prisms at the top of the lens are all that remain of the lens' glasswork.

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Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, Ernest Zakhari, used by permission.