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Morris Island Light Owes Much to Hains
Monday, August 6, 2001  —  Architecture and Preservation

What does the Morris Island Lighthouse have in common with the battles of Bull Run and Vicksburg, the scenic drive to Mount Vernon, Washington's Tidal Basin and the Panama Canal?

A) They all have something to do with water.
B) They all have been featured for picture postcards.
C) They're all in the first paragraph of this column.
D) Peter C. Hains

The best answer, as those most involved with saving the lighthouse learned only last month, is D.

As the nonprofit group Save the Light Inc. strives to raise money for the preservation of the imposing landmark that once guided ships into Charleston Harbor, its members are also preserving, or at least reviving, a lot of history, too.

And it often happens in the most unexpected ways.

Doug Bostick, a historian and Save the Light's executive director, gave a talk last month to residents at the Bishop Gadsden Retirement Community on James Island, one of dozens of talks designed to raise both awareness and money.

He mentioned that Hains designed the Morris Island Lighthouse, and that name struck a familiar chord with a woman in the audience.

The woman, who retired to Charleston, told Bostick her late husband served in the Army with a Brigadier Gen. Peter Hains III. She also gave him an address of his son, retired Army Col. Peter Hains IV.

Bostick says he got in touch with Hains and with two cousins, all of whom had different, significant scraps of information that shed light on the lighthouse engineer.

"We literally have been looking for information for years," he says. "Everybody in that family knew some things about Peter Hains, but nobody had the full story. It was only by talking to everyone that we were able to not only put the story together for us, but to put the story together for them."

Bostick says he pieced together this description of a remarkable man who designed a remarkable lighthouse.

Peter Conover Hains was born July 6, 1840, to a relatively poor Philadelphia shoemaker. He attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1857; George Armstrong Custer was his classmate.

After graduating in 1861, Hains served in the Union artillery and fired the first shot of the Battle of Bull Run in Manassas, Va. Later in the war, when the chief engineer fell ill at Vicksburg, Hains designed the successful siege for the Union Army under Gen. U.S. Grant.

By 1864, Hains had been promoted to captain and married the daughter of Adm. Thornton Jenkins, chief of staff to Adm. Farragut. Two years later, he transferred to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and worked on lighthouse construction from 1868 to 1878, including structures off Morris Island and St. Augustine.

By 1882, Hains was working as the chief engineer on the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, and he designed the Tidal Basin, which solved the capital's problem of a foul-smelling, stagnant swamp. The site today is near the Jefferson Memorial, and Hains Point overlooks the basin and the Washington Monument. In 1890, he designed the national road built from Washington to Mount Vernon (now known as the George Washington Parkway).

Hains also served on the Nicaragua Canal and Panama Canal commissions and successfully argued to build it in Panama.

Toward the end of his life, in 1916, he was called to active duty and appointed major general by an act of Congress. This made him the only Civil War officer to serve on active duty in World War I and the oldest U.S. officer in uniform during that war.

The more Bostick has uncovered about Hains, the more he understands what he and others are trying to save.

Hains designed the 3,200-ton, 158-foot-tall lighthouse in such a solid way that it survives to this day, even though what once was on a beach 1,200 feet from the shore now stands in the water, 1,600 feet from shore.

"He actually was an extraordinary engineer, and this work was early in his career," Bostick says. "The fact that the lighthouse has survived is no accident. It was Mayor Hains' work."

Bostick says Save the Light not only is piecing together Hains' story but also the stories of the many other lives influenced by the lighthouse and the largely vanished Morris Island.

"We knew that Hains did exemplary work here, but we had no idea of the scope and scale of his career," Bostick says.

"I think at every turn, as we research the lighthouse and everybody that was connected to it, we found that at every step in this journey, it's not a simple story of a light that guided ships."

For more information about the ongoing efforts to preserve the lighthouse, call 795-8911 or visit the Web site: savethelight.org.

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