~ brief history — 1876 ~

1862  <  History  >  1938


The new Morris Island Lighthouse is illuminated on October 1, 1876.

In March 1867, Congress appropriated $15,000 for range lights on Morris Island. In 1869, three additional light beacons were built. The third beacon was a 35-foot skeleton frame tower, enclosed at the top with a lantern and seven-foot watch room. The lighthouse tender Maggie was assigned to the Charleston ship channel to compliment the range lights and beacons.

On March 3, 1873, Congress passed the first of three appropriations for "commencing the rebuilding of a first order seacoast light on Morris Island destroyed during the war." This $60,000 initial appropriation allowed the engineering work to be done. Fortunately, two letters from Major Peter O. Hains, of the Army Corps of Engineers, to Professor Joseph Henry, chairman of the Lighthouse Board in Washington, have survived providing a great deal of information about the construction of Morris Island's third lighthouse.

His first letter, dated Dec. 18, 1873, provided an in-depth examination of the site for the lighthouse. Major Hains noted of the soil test, "The soil is very soft to a considerable depth, utterly wanting in bearing capacity for such a structure as a light-house tower, and that the cheapest way to overcome this difficulty will be to drive piles."

In 1873, a contract had been let for the ironwork. Work on driving the piles was scheduled to start in the fall of that year.

Major Hains noted that a reconfigured and "more careful estimate places the weight [of the tower] at 3200 tons." He increased the size of the base to 22 feet, driving piles at two feet, eight inch centers rather than two feet, 10 inch. This increased the total number of piles to 264 and distributed only 12 tons of weight per pile. He was obviously attempting to provide a strong base, since each pile could bear up to 20 tons each.

Finally, to further strengthen the foundation, he noted that he intended to leave the cofferdam needed for construction in place. He cut the sheet piling off at the water line and filled the dam and piles with concrete to 20 feet. His report stated, "By using Portland cement and making the mortar rich, the mass can be made about as strong as a single rock."

By June 1874, 70 of the 264 piles had been driven, but work was suspended until the "sickly season" was over. Based on the progress, on June 23, Congress approved the second appropriation of $60,000 for the Morris Island Lighthouse. The piles were driven by November. As designed, they were cut off below water level and capped, forming a grillage. Concrete was poured between the piles and over the grillage. The base of the tower, below surface of the ground, was eight feet thick, and the surface base was 36 feet in diameter. Congress approved the final appropriation of $30,000 in March 1875. Approaching the "sickly season" in the summer of 1875, work was again suspended.

In design, the Morris Island Lighthouse tower, lantern room and external gallery matches two North Carolina lights built in the same era. The Bodie Island Lighthouse, Oregon Inlet, North Carolina was built in 1872. Like Morris Island, the Bodie Island tower was painted in black and white bands. Secondly, the Currituck Lighthouse in the Outer Banks was put into service on Dec. 1, 1875. The Currituck tower was left unpainted.

The completed tower was 33 feet in diameter at the base and 16 ft. 8 in. at the top. The tower was constructed with two shells of brickwork, "the inner one being cylindrical and connected to the outer one with six radial walls. The inner and outer walls decrease in thickness as they approach the top." The thickness of the outer shell was 3 ft. 9 in. at the base and narrowing to 1 ft. 10.5 in. at the top. More than one million bricks were used in the construction of the tower. The distance from the ground to the focal plane of the lantern is 150 feet, with a total height of 158 feet.

Inside the tower, an iron stairway of nine flights led to the lantern room. The parapet, gallery and supporting brackets were all made of iron. On the east and west faces of the tower at alternate levels were segmented-arched head windows. The lantern room was outfitted with a revolving, first order Fresnel lens fueled with lard oil. The lightroom had an external gallery with an iron parapet. The parapet had decorative iron pendants on its lower edge.

In 1873, a new first order Fresnel lens cost $10,000. As noted it was fueled by lard oil, burning 26.25 ounces of oil per hour. The lens had more than 1,000 individual glass prisms and weighed more than 12,800 pounds.

The Morris Island Lighthouse was completed and the new light illuminated on Oct. 1, 1876. The lens, fixed white with an arc of 270 degrees and a catadraptric reflector of 90 degrees, was mounted. The new first order Fresnel lens provided 50,000 candlepower with visibility reaching to 19 miles at sea. Once completed, the total cost of the Morris Island Lighthouse was $149,993.50 (in year 2000 dollars the equivalent of 1.9 million dollars).

The Keeper, two assistants and their families lived in a three-story dwelling at the base of the tower. Shortly, the lighthouse complex included 15 buildings on the grounds: three keepers residences, outbuildings, barns, chicken coups, and a one-room schoolhouse for the keepers' children.

By 1876, ships were greeted by the new Morris Island Lighthouse and a series of range lights operating in conjunction with the main light, were located east and west of the channel to guide ships. Morris Island, in addition to the main light, had two beacons fitted with fifth order Fresnel lenses. Sullivans Island had a beacon on front island with a sixth order lens and a beacon on the rear islands with a fourth order lens. Castle Pinckney and Fort Sumter each had a beacon equipped with a fifth order lens.

Brigadier General Gilmore, former commander for all Union forces in the siege of Charleston, was an engineer by trade before the war. At the end of the War Between the States, he remained in Charleston and was re-assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers.

In October 1877, the Chamber of Commerce in Charleston asked Congress to appropriate funds for the construction of jetties, designed by General Gilmore, in the channel to Charleston Harbor. At low tide the channel was only 12-13 feet deep. By designing jetties for each side of the channel, Gilmore calculated that the outflow of water would keep a deeper channel cut through, perhaps as deep as 21 feet.

The Charleston Chamber marketed Charleston harbor as the "shortest, cheapest and most reliable route by which to send their [the western grain growers] productions to European, South American, and West Indian markets." Senator M. C. Butler of South Carolina introduced the legislation for the "National Jetties". The bill passed Congress and the contract was awarded in September 1878 to a New York construction company who pledged to use South Carolina granite, railroads and labor. The final bid was for $21 per linear foot.

The jetties were installed by putting down an apron of heavy logs and brush and then three layers of riprap stone. Work began on the north jetty from Sullivans Island, starting 1800 feet east of the Bowman Jetty, in December 1878. The construction of the South Jetty started at a point 650 yards from Cummings Point. The jetties were not completed until the summer of 1895, a 17-year project. When completed, the north jetty extended 14,327 feet, the south jetty 14,109 feet. The price tag for the jetties was $3,707,932.77.

As early as 1881, the effects of the jetties were already being felt, even while still under construction. The main channel was deepening, but, though unintended, the shoreline of Sullivans Island and Morris Island was rapidly eroding. The jetties created new "sand transport" patterns leaving Morris and Sullivans Island sand starved. Two spur jetties were added to the north side to stop the erosion of Sullivans Island. Four spur jetties were designed for Morris Island but never funded. In 1880, the Morris Island lighthouse was 2,700 feet from the shoreline. By 1938, it was on the shoreline. Today, the lighthouse stands more than 1,600 feet offshore.

Ironically, Gen. Gilmore failed to take Morris Island during the war, with superior numbers and firepower. After the war, he "unintentionally" destroyed the island as a result of his design for the jetties.

1862  <  History  >  1938