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Aug 21 2009

An enlightening Lighthouse Day

Built in 1962, the Charleston Light was the last lighthouse built in the United States.

Built in 1962, the Charleston Light was the last lighthouse built in the United States.

By Dylan Sharek

The Charleston Light, the Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse’s formal and real name, is the island’s elephant in the room; people know it’s there, but don’t talk about it or really know anything about it. And that’s probably because the lighthouse isn’t as entertaining as the dynamic history of Fort Moultrie and the many mortar batteries scattered on every other block of this historical island.

And the fact is, it’s easy to ignore the Charleston Light these days. Commissioned by the United States in 1962 to be the last major lighthouse constructed, the Charleston Light once cast a semi-constant 28 million candle power sheen over the island. Residents immediately went up-in-arms over the Chernobyl-like aura, and demanded the house’s light be reduced. In its contemporary, reduced role, the lighthouse now only emits a diminutive 1.5 million candles worth of power.

It’s also hard to ignore the lighthouse’s dire need for restoration. During National Lighthouse Day on August 8, I had the chance to observe this impressively tall tower, and the immediate need for cosmetic upheaval was very apparent. The black and white paint that covers the aluminum structure’s top and bottom halves, respectively, has become worn and chipped from salty winds and incessant rain. Our tour guides, a couple from the National Park Service, told us there’s “simply not enough funds to paint it”, casually mentioning the $2 million price tag. And the inside is even worse.

Even entering the lighthouse was impossible for the general public until recently, when several improvements were made to its infrastructure. Metal staircases that once allowed access to the lighthouse’s upper most reaches have become rickety and crushed after years of no maintenance, meaning curious visitors can only ascend about a fourth of the way up. The chipping teal paint and gaudy, brushed red floors scream “lead poisoning”, and despite being the only lighthouse in the United States with an elevator, the National Park Service hasn’t received enough support to get it up and running. Fortunately, it appears as though that could change in the near future.

Save The Light, a Charleston-based non-profit organization that supports the Morris Island Lighthouse, was on hand to display what can happen with just a little support. After purchasing the Morris Island Lighthouse in 1999, the group exhaustively fund-raised, earning nearly $4 million which is just enough to institute a four phase preservation plan.

Robert New, one of Save The Light’s founding members, told the 50 or so lighthouse devotees in attendance for National Lighthouse Day that “Phase one is now complete” for the Morris Island Lighthouse, meaning that the cofferdams designed to decrease damage caused by waves were in place. In the next few years, another $1.5 million will be spent on filling in the dams, creating further support for the lighthouse. After that, a total cosmetic facelift will bring the Morris Island Lighthouse back to its former glory.

And while the Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse has yet to receive that same support, National Lighthouse Day was a step in the right direction. The Charleston Light is a historic monument that deserves preservation: not only is it full of firsts (It is the only triangular shaped lighthouse, it’s the only one made of aluminum, and it’s the only lighthouse which houses an elevator), but it’s also the last of a bygone way of ship navigation. That alone should be enough for people to make the effort to secure it’s future.

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