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Morris Island light offered for sale
Thursday, October 17, 1996 (Front Page)  —  Charleston Post and Courier

The Morris Island Lighthouse near Folly Beach has stood for more than a century, but who knows how long it can continue to withstand the ocean waves that smash at its base?

Now stranded in the water of an inlet, the striped tower rising 150 feet above the water is a historic landmark, adding a touch of beauty to a view over the ocean and a beach unoccupied since the Civil War.

For the past two decades, the lighthouse was privately owned and its owner didn't want to sell - for what the government was willing to give him.

But that has changed.

Weeks ago, owner S.E. "Speedy" Felkel gave up rights to ownership of the lighthouse in a foreclosure. And the new owner, a Columbia man in the timber and logging business, wants to sell.

Now a group of 18 James Island and Folly Beach residents, who have worried for years about the condition of the lighthouse, are urging the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission to buy the lighthouse and help protect it for centuries to come.

"We're here because a unique event occurred - Speedy Felkel lost (the lighthouse)", Folly Beach resident Robert New told park commission members, who were receptive to buying the lighthouse but said they needed more time to study the idea.

"I don't have the slightest doubt that this is of overwhelming interest" commission member Miles Martschink said of the lighthouse, also known as the Old Charleston Lighthouse.

The group of residents, who said they could have deluged the commission with hundreds of supporters, are urging the commission to buy the lighthouse for $100,000, the asking price of the new owner, Paul Gunter.

"I think Paul Gunter is willing to convey whatever interest he has in the property" Gunter's attorney, Jamison Cox, told park commission members. Cox said that another proposed buyer, a private citizen, has approached Gunter.

New said the group of residents wants the commission to buy the lighthouse while it can so that it is in the public's hands. The group plans to set up a lighthouse foundation to raise as much as $500,000 needed to stabilize it, New said.

An engineering firm preliminarily has found that a watertight structure can be built around and below the lighthouse to shore it up, supporters of the lighthouse said.

Commissioner Lee Roeber, however, asked what the public's investment in the lighthouse would be if the group fails to raise the money. "We don't want to take on an albatross if in fact you all can't raise the money", she said.

Felkel, a Goose Creek real estate developer, bought the lighthouse for $25,000 in 1966. The Coast Guard had abandoned the structure in the 1960s as surplus government property and Felkel bought it from the first private owner. The lighthouse has a 4-foot-thick brick base, is structurally sound, and not in any danger of collapsing, Felkel has said. Even so, he said two years ago that money needed to be spent to restore the structure.

The lighthouse was built in 1876, the third built on the site in the last 200 years. It formed a complex of buildings on Morris Island, including a lighthouse keeper's house and outhouse, said J.B. Dewalt, a James Island resident.

The lighthouse, on the National Register of Historic Places, is one of 752 traditional lighthouses in the country, one-third of which were built between 1876 and 1925, Dewalt said.

Over the years, erosion has swept away the land on which the lighthouse sat and it now stands surrounded by water. The water is 10 feet deep at low tide at the 33-foot-diameter base of the lighthouse, Dewalt said.

"No efforts have been made to protect it from erosion", he said.

The lighthouse is one of nine remaining along South Carolina's coast, Dewalt said.

New said the lighthouse has a storied history which alone is reason to protect it. "There's always stories about lighthouse keepers going crazy, which probably accounts for the people of Folly Beach today", he joked.

The commission's staff now will meet with the group and Cox, and make a recommendation later to the full commission. No timetable was set for a decision.

©1996  Charleston Post and Courier  —  All Rights Reserved.
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