Thursday, November 3, 2011

Morris Island Lighthouse-Once A Beacon Of Light, Now A Symbol Of Survival

The phrase "shifting sands of time" is an old saying usually associated with an hour glass. Its meaning forebodes a change in circumstances. A famous lighthouse outside of Charleston Harbor, once a proud guardian of the coastline, now a vanquished sentinel, was victimized by the shifting sands of time, literally. The lighthouse residents and visitors see today was constructed beginning in 1873 and completed 1876. It was named the Morris Island Lighthouse because that is where it once upon a time stood. Sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale, but this is no fairy tale.

The Morris Island Lighthouse no longer stands on Morris Island. The sands upon which it was built are no longer there and this is where our story has a twist. Once upon a time Morris Island was actually three islands that stretched from Folly Beach to Sullivan's Island, and the lighthouse you see today was not the first Charleston lighthouse. The three islands were named Middle Bay Island, Morrison Island, and Cummings Point.

The first lighthouse tower built in 1767 stood 102 feet and had a revolving lamp with a range of 12 miles. In time, changing tidal currents altered the channel leading into Charleston and the three islands slowly merged into one and became just Morrison Island, later shortened to Morris. Then, the Civil War came and the lighthouse suffered an explosive ending. Fleeing Confederate troops blew up the lighthouse so Union troops couldn't benefit from it.

The lighthouse we see today was the replacement for the destroyed lighthouse. It stands at a height of 161 feet. This is where the story takes a twist. The channel shifted once again. This time threatening the Charleston Harbor, which could not be allowed to happen. Jetties were built, saving the harbor, but the result caused severe erosion on Morris Island. The island shrunk. Many of the buildings, which included the keeper's house and a school house, were destroyed by other powerful natural forces or moved. Slowly, the shifting sands retreated from around the lighthouse. The light was automated in 1938 and the Fresnel lens was removed. It continued to operate until it was eventually decommissioned in 1962.

The lighthouse address is now several hundred feet in the ocean. Yes, literally surrounded by the deep blue sea. The Coast Guard planned on destroying it, but local residents came to the rescue. It is now privately owned and efforts are underway to preserve it.

The Morris Island Lighthouse is just one of many in a system of lighthouses built up and down the East Coast--standing as protectors and guides. Some of them are still active, some of them are not. Some of them are open to the public, some are not. They are great subjects for photographs and their history is fascinating. To see what life was like for the caretakers and keepers of the lighthouses, visit one and take on the experience of climbing the hundreds of stairs to the top. The view is spectacular.

The Morris Island Lighthouse, for obvious reasons, is not open to the public. You can view it from the shores of Folly Beach. Another historical site affected by the erosion was Fort Wagner--the famous Confederate fort featured in the movie "Glory" with Matthew Broderick as Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Although the jetties caused the erosion of Morris Island, it saved Charleston Harbor. It is a great place to fish.

The lens installed at Morris Island was a first-order Fresnel lens--the largest, most powerful and expensive lens with an illuminating apparatus fueled by mineral oil. A Fresnel lens is a multi-part lens developed by French physicist and engineer Augustin-Jean Fresnel. When compared to a conventional lens it is much thinner, larger, and flatter, and captures more oblique light from a light source, thus allowing lighthouses to be visible over much greater distances.

I recently went on a trip to Corolla, Outer Banks and toured the Currituck Lighthouse, which heightened my interest to check out Charleston's lighthouses.

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