~ article ~
FOLLY BEACH - It has been almost 40 years since Coast Guard darkened the Morris Island Lighthouse and abandoned it to the encroaching sea that now swirls around its base.
Local residents, however, never abandoned the 123-year-old light that stands in 10 feet of water at low tide. To them, it is as much a part of the Lowcountry as church bells chiming in Charleston's many steeples.
"It's the most visible symbol of the long maritime history of Charleston", said Robert New, co-chairman of a group working to preserve the light from the ravages of tide and time.
The non-profit group, Save The Light Inc., bought the 158-foot lighthouse earlier this year from a Columbia businessman for $75,000 and plans to turn it over to the state. If all goes well, a contract for repairs could be let next year.
New hopes the recent publicity about moving North Carolina's Cape Hatteras Lighthouse will help efforts to save the Morris Island light. It took almost a month this summer to roll that 208-foot tower back 2,900 feet from the oncoming sea.
"Lighthouses have an almost indescribable charm and mystery and a certain lore that draws people", he said. "Maybe it's the solitude of the lighthouse or the sense there are a lot of stories untold in the walls".
Morris Island, at the northeastern end of Folly Beach, was gradually eroded after construction of the Charleston Harbor jetties in the late 1800s.
The island was the site of Battery Wagner, the Confederate battery that was the subject of the ill-fated charge of the black 54th Massachusetts regiment recreated in the movie "Glory".
The Coast Guard decommissioned the light in 1962 as the sea advanced, replacing it with the Sullivan's Island Lighthouse on the opposite side of Charleston Harbor. It wanted to dismantle the Morris Island light, but local residents and others, including U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., opposed the idea.
The light passed into private hands and, by the end of the decade, was completely at sea, New said.
The lighthouse, which is similar in design to Cape Hatteras, is built on pilings pounded 50 feet into the sand. It lists slightly and was cracked in the Charleston earthquake of 1886, a decade after it was built.
The lighthouse was registered as a National Historic Landmark in 1982.
Within the next few weeks, an Army Corps of Engineers study of what it will take to protect the light should be complete.
"The corps is telling us, and the early indications are, that we can build a barrier around the light to the extent it will remain safe and secure for another generation or two", New said.
The estimated cost is $2.5 million. The state has appropriated $500,000 and, if it takes title to the lighthouse, would be eligible for an additional $1 million from the Corps of Engineers.
Save The Light has collected $150,000 and hopes to raise whatever other money is needed to complete the financial package.
The group operates a Web site and, next weekend, as part of International Lighthouse Weekend, amateur radio operators will transmit from the lighthouse.
"The only goal of the group right now is saving the structure and saving the foundation", New said.
While some folks have suggested that is all that should be done, others want to renovate the light and and light it again. "Probably the end result will be somewhere in the middle", New said.
Charleston has almost always had a light on the site.
"The first navigation light of any kind on Morris Island, a raised metal pan light in which they built a bonfire, was built in 1673", said Bob Chapman, who oversees the group's Web site. That was three years after the founding of Charleston.
A regular lighthouse was built in the early 1700s and replaced late in that century. The replacement lighthouse was destroyed in the Civil War.