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Living on Top of the World
Wednesday, November 24, 1999  —  Charleston Post and Courier

By Jennifer Berry Hawes

When he was a boy of 7 and 8, Robert Burn spent summers with his Uncle Edgar, caretaker of the Morris Island Lighthouse.

The last living person to reside at the historic structure, Burn today recalls months of virtual solitude. Back then, around 1927, the Lighthouse towered above an undeveloped swath of honeysuckle and oleander on Folly Beach.

The scent was "so sweet it almost made you sick," recalls Burn, a World War II veteran who turns 80 in May.

Today, this vacant National Historic Landmark appears a drowning sentry knee-deep in the salt water between Folly beach and Morris Island.

Submerged wooden beams that help support the lighthouse are rotting and infested with worms. Engineers recently estimated the cost to stabilize and restore it at $1.5 million to $2 million.

That's hardly the lighthouse of Burn's memories.

As lighthouse keeper, Uncle Edgar had little more to do for his job than to light the lamp every sundown. Burn often helped out, running up the circular steps, up what seemed a mile high.

Actually, the brick lighthouse rises 158 feet.

"I'd just go around and around until I got to the top," he recalls.

From way up there, Burn could see for miles over a vast ocean and a much smaller city of Charleston.

"It's quite a view up there. You can see all over the place," Burn says.

Then he would run down the stairs and head into another long day of relaxing with his uncle. Decent work if you can get it, he says.

"Once the lamp was lit you were done for the day," Burns says. "It's not bad if you like to be alone."

He spent long summer days watching the flowers, playing in the water and sometimes fishing - unless one of Charleston's nasty storms hit. He had the entire beach to himself.

Other times, he and Uncle Edgar spent hours talking, about what exactly Burn can't recall seven decades later.

"There was not much else to do," Burn says. "We had to do something."

Often he did lots of nothing.

But Uncle Edgar also had a passion - and the time - for reading lots of books. Burn often joined him.

"I don't believe the library had more books than he did at the time," Burn recalls.

There wasn't much other company around - other than a rogue hog that liked to hang out there.

Just two houses stood on Morris Island near the lighthouse including the five-room one where Uncle Edgar lived. Both are underwater today, Burn says.

His uncle cared for lighthouses in different towns his whole life, until he retired in the mid-1930s. After his time at the Morris Island lighthouse, he was transferred to another lighthouse.

Soon after, jetties were installed on Morris Island.

"That took the lighthouse off the land and put it into the ocean," Burn says.

Several weeks ago, Burn joined a church outing to Folly Beach and was amazed at the development there. It was so unlike his memories of playing for hours without another soul nearby.

"It's quite a difference," he marvels.

Born and raised downtown, Burn now lives in North Charleston with his wife of 61 years, Marjorie Mae. He remembers the day he spotted her walking down the street.

"I just liked her looks," he laughs.

They have three grown children, Robert III, Ronald and Barbara. They also have five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren - all boys. Burn wouldn't mind a great-granddaughter in the mix, but he's not complaining.

Shortly after he finished school, an 18-year-old Burn went to work at Westvaco Corp. where he stayed until retiring in 1976. He'd spend 25 years working as a foreman there.

A member of several country clubs, Burn now puts his spare time into golf. "Golf is it," he says. And although he isn't involved in efforts to preserve the lighthouse, Burn would like to see it again one day.

Today, a door blocks access to the lighthouse, which is private property. Gone are the days when boaters could get a easy peek.

Access was restricted by the non-profit Save the Light Inc., which owns and has taken charge of efforts to save the 123-year-old lighthouse.

The legislature has allocated $500,000 for its preservation, but that's contingent on public ownership. In November, the S.C. Heritage Trust Advisory Board decided to begin negotiations with Save the Light to buy the lighthouse, something the group wants.

"I'd love to see them take care of it," Burn says.

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