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Beacons on the Horizon
Sunday, May 21, 1995  —  Charleston Post and Courier

Lighthouses hold a mystical attraction for romantics who collect everything they can find about them. Like moths to lights they come. Over and over in waves. They just can't get enough. One of them is Theresa Roberts. She smiles unable to explain her fascination with Lighthouses or why her room looks like a maritime shrine, packed I with a myriad of lighthouse collectibles. There's the cross-stitched pillow of four state lighthouses that won first place at the fair and albums packed full of hundreds of clippings, photos and post cards. There are the collector plates, stamps, videos, reproduction models and the Jim Booth prints.

Family, vacations center around seeing lighthouses. She drags her mother up all the stairs, she says, smiling.

"I don't know what the draw is. They're beautiful, and they're a part of history. They're all about saving lives. There's just something good about them."

She's not alone.

Wayne Wheeler, president and founder of the non-profit U.S. Lighthouse Society, says lighthouses appeal to people for a variety of reasons, but he has noticed most enthusiasts are optimistic people. His organization, which boasts more than 8,500 members, assists in the restoration and preservation of America's lighthouses and serves as an informational clearinghouse.

Wheeler says lighthouses seem to be especially popular now. The collectibles industry is having to work hard to manufacture enough items to keep up with demand. Mildred Simmons, owner and manager of Carolina Gifts and Sea Shells, says she just thought they were big last year.

"But they're even bigger this year. People are really looking for them."

She recently had a woman from New York who came to Charleston just to see the Morris Island lighthouse. She has wallpapered her home with a print features that lighthouse.

"She bought everything we had to do with lighthouses," she said.

Artist Jim Booth says lighthouses are the most requested item to paint and his prints featuring ones in the state have sold well. Though he has painted more than a dozen lighthouse scenes, he never tires of the subject. "It's all in the angle and the lighting that transforms the landscape", he says. If he's lucky, he catches a view at sunrise when the light briefly glints from the glass at top, bringing it back to life with its phantom light.

"You're trying to capture some type of mystique about them. Here's something beautiful that has withstood decades of hurricanes and storms and still greets people coming in from the sea".

Today, there still are lighthouses that serve their functional purpose, but most are obsolete because of modern navigational aids. All have been automated and are unmanned except in Boston, he says. There are an estimated 850 light stations left.

Only two of South Carolina's nine lighthouses, all with their own colorful pasts, still shine bright.

So, why the storm of popularity?

Wheeler laughs. There are as many reasons as there are people.

"Some take a romantic view of the solitary sentinels in their brave perches on a sometimes angry sea. Others see them as a rich, religious symbol." Wheeler says he has at least a dozen clergy who use them as a symbol in their churches and in their sermons.

"It's the antithesis of living in the city - that beep, beep, beep and jackhammer going; people yelling at each other. But then you get out there and it's the sweep of beach and a calm lap of waves".

Most lighthouse lovers are history buffs as well. They recognize that lighthouses represent a vanishing way of life, evoking nostalgic memories of a bygone era, an era when most commerce was done by water, Wheeler says.

Until the 20th century, about 90% of the world's goods moved by water, hence the phrase connoting success: "His ship came in".

Ships would come in with basic household goods, from French wines to women's dresses, he says.

Many men made their living on the water, a dangerous profession, though not without its rewards. Lloyd's of London reported one year in the 1880s that more than 800 ships insured by Lloyd's alone never made port. Wheeler says he's been amazed by the heroic efforts people have made to save lighthouses, and how they've brought communities together.

"I can tell you stories for hours, like Fire Island, where they raised $1.6 million from the public. There are little tiny lighthouses in Michigan and northern California, where the towns have no more than 2,500 people but they maintain a lighthouse and a museum. They make the money by spaghetti dinners and cake sales and T-shirts".

In St. Augustine, Fla., a town of 17,000 people, a woman's civic group raised money locally and through grants that included $650,000 to restore the keeper's house, then $80,000 to restore a lens broken by vandals, and $250,000 to paint the inside and outside of the tower.

"That's absolutely incredible".

Wheeler is the first to admit that not all can be saved. "Morris Island lighthouse may be one that it is not feasible to save, given the erosion and the formidable task of moving it should that be necessary", he says. He's happy to see restorations that are being made at Cape Romain.

"There are many that can and should be saved", he says.

After all, these solitary sentinels have served mankind well for centuries, since 300 B.C., when the Egyptians built the Pharaohs of Alexandria. It stood 450 feet high and was lit by a fire in its top. The first lighthouse in America was Boston Lighthouse on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor. It was first lit in 1716, soon to be followed by a string of others.

But no matter the century or the coastline, there's one thing in common, says Wheeler. It explains much of their appeal.

"As George Bernard Shaw said, 'I can think of no other edifice constructed by man as altruistic as a lighthouse.' They were built only to serve. They weren't built for any other purpose".

©1995  Charleston Post and Courier  —  All Rights Reserved.
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