~ brief history — 1838 ~

1767  <  History  >  1862


A second, taller tower replaces the first lighthouse. This new lighthouse is 102 feet tall with a revolving light.

After the ratification of the Constitution, Congress faced the task of running our new country. On Aug. 7, 1789, Congress passed its ninth law, establishing the lighthouse service. This service would take over the operation of the 12 functioning lighthouses. The first public works project ever funded by the US government was the construction of Cape Henry Lighthouse in 1792.

The lighthouse Service grew rapidly. From 1789 to 1820, the number of lighthouses reached 55. By 1852, there were 325 lighthouses and 35 lightships and beacons.

On Jan. 20, 1790, the South Carolina Legislature transferred title for the Charleston Light and the 565.5 acres of Middle Bay Island to the United States. Within the year, the tidal waters blocked and silted in the creeks separating the three islands. The resulting island was called Morrison's Island. The only entrance to Charleston Harbor for deep draft boats was just off Lighthouse Inlet (Pumpkin Hill Channel) at "Five Fathom Hole." From that point the channel led to within several hundred yards of Sullivans Island turning west to the peninsula city.

The Charleston Light served the port and the citizens of South Carolina well. In May 1800, Congress appropriated $5,950 for the Charleston Light. In 1801 and 1802, the tower was re-built and the height increased to cast the light further out to sea. While Congress was rapidly expanding the number of lighthouses and the lighthouse service, the lighthouses were not always equipped with all the necessities. In 1811, a U.S. Gunboat struck the reef at Pumpkin Hill Channel and, as proclaimed on the 1776 French map, promptly sank. The lighthouse keeper watched with horror as the ship and its crew disappeared in the swift currents. He noted that had he a boat at the lighthouse station, he might have saved some of the crew.

In 1812, the Charleston Light was refitted with a new argard lamp burning sperm oil. This lamp used a reflector system to enhance the brightness of the light, thus extending the distance it could be seen at sea. The argard lamp was the new "Winslow's Patent Magnifying and Reflecting Lantern."

In March 1835, Congress appropriated $5,000 for five beacons at Charleston. These new range lights were to work in coordination with the lighthouse to guide ships through the channel. Construction of these beacons did not begin, and the funds had to be re-appropriated in 1837. Two of the five beacons would be constructed on Morris Island. The other three beacons were located at Sullivans Island, Castle Pinckney and the Battery.

Construction also began on a new lighthouse tower in 1837 to replace the 1767 structure. Completed in 1838, the tower was 102 feet tall and equipped with a revolving light. The light was actually 12 lamps designed with 21-inch reflectors.

Congress continued to appropriate funds for additional beacons, recognizing both the importance of Charleston harbor and the large number of ships moving through the channel. Appropriations for beacon lights were passed in 1850 ($2,500), 1853 ($3,000), and 1854 ($1,000).

The lighthouse service was reminded of the realities of nature on the coast when a major hurricane hit Charleston in September 1854. The storm destroyed the keepers' house, the five beacons and severely damaged the lighthouse. Congress appropriated funds to build new beacons at Morris Island (2), Sullivans Island, Castle Pinckney, and the Battery in Charleston. A new beacon was also built at Fort Sumter. After much debate, the decision was made to repair and upgrade the lighthouse on Morris Island. In August 1856, Congress appropriated $2,500 to rebuild a house for the keeper and his assistant, and to repair the Charleston Light. Notably, Congress also appropriated $15,000 to install a new first order Fresnel lens in the lighthouse. This cost of the Fresnel lens is equivalent to $284,000 in year 2000 dollars! Additionally, fifth or sixth order Fresnel lenses were installed in the beacons. Construction began on the house and the lighthouse in early 1857. The Charleston Light, with its new first order Fresnel lens, was illuminated on Jan. 1, 1858.

1767  <  History  >  1862