Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Morris Island Lighthouse--The Shifting Sands Upon Which It Was Built

Like the ocean tides, history has flowed in and out of Charleston Harbor since its inception. An inlet formed by the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers and a maze of wild-life-rich barrier islands, it was the perfect location to start a colony and establish what has become the charming and hospitable city of Charleston. From Oyster Point on the peninsula to Fort Sumter at the entrance and back, its coastline offers roughly 10 miles of scenic beauty and rich history. Yet, those same ocean tides reinforced by the power of the natural and unnatural order of things have now and again whipped up its shifting sands of time and rearranged the harbor's protective estuary islands, three in particular.

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 have been altered 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 Charleston lighthouse was built on the 565 acre Middle Bay Island in 1767. The tower rose forty-three feet and served well, until it was darkened for a period during the Revolutionary War. After the war, the federal government took control of the island and various improvements were subsequently made to increase the range of the light. During 1801 and 1802, the tower was heightened, and in 1812 an Aragand lamp-reflector system was installed.

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. In the 1830s, the Lighthouse Service built a new, 102-foot tower to replace the 1767 tower. In 1854, a hurricane struck the lighthouse. The keeper's dwelling was destroyed and the tower was damaged. When the lighthouse was repaired, a revolving new first-order lens light with a range of 12 miles was installed in the tower on January 1, 1858. The tower had survived the battle with the hurricane, but 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. Completed in 1876, the lighthouse was built 400 yards away from the original one standing 161-feet tall with a pattern based off the Bodie Light off the Outer Banks in North Carolina. A first-order Fresnel lens was installed. In 1884 the illuminating apparatus was changed for the use of mineral oil instead of lard oil. Morris Island now contained 15 buildings, including the keeper's quarters, various outbuildings, and a one-room schoolhouse.

This is where the story takes a twist. The channel shifted once again. This time threatening 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.

The 1886 earthquake cracked the tower extensively in two places, but not so as to endanger its stability. The cracks were repaired. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo struck Charleston, destroying the remaining buildings around the lighthouse, only leaving the actual tower standing. 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 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.

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 have been ongoing 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 or up close and personal on the Morris Island Lighthouse Eco Tour. Another historical site on the island affected by the erosion was Fort Wagner--the famous Confederate fort featured in the movie "Glory." Although the jetties caused the erosion of Morris Island, it saved Charleston Harbor.

Interested in other lighthouses nearby:

To the north of Morris island Lighthouse and beyond Bull's Island, in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, resides Lighthouse Island where you can tour two lighthouses--one conical in shape rising to a height of 65 feet and the other octagonal standing 150 feet from sand to top. The 1827 lighthouse is the oldest of its kind still standing in the United States. They are a part of the Cape Romain Lighthouses Tour only scheduled four times a year.

Another lies just south, on Hunting Island. The 132 foot, 167 step Hunting Island historic lighthouse is the only lighthouse open to the public to climb in the state. From the top platform, you can get a breathtaking view of the ocean, beach and the marshland.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Two Famous Ships Will Be Visiting Charleston Starting April 28th--One Of Them Inspired A Unique Restaurant

"In nineteen hundred ten plus two, Bernstein opened San Francisco's Fish Grotto." I admittedly confess this intended poetic verse is not an exact rhyme, but for a rationale about to be revealed, it will suffice. Now, as to the anomalous opening and its relevance, you will shortly comprehend my forgivable attempt to employ a humorous play on the opening words of a very famous poem, but first I will answer the glaring question: Who was Bernstein and what was the Fish Grotto?

Maurice Bernstein was an Oakland fish merchant who ran a number of eateries in the Bay Area and the Fish Grotto at 123 Powell Street was one of them. Called "The Ship That Never Goes To Sea," the restaurant was a popular and unique tourist attraction from 1912 to 1981. Serving dishes found nowhere else in the city, such as abalone steaks, mussels bordelaise and coo-coo clams from Coo-Coo Cove, one could unequivocally argue its menu was what made it unique, but historically, its claim to fame was its one-of-a-kind street entrance.

Intended to be a reproduction of Christopher Columbus' ship Niña, the restaurant was built with a ship's bow jutting out into the sidewalk. Inside, the marine theme continued. Bernstein's had seven dining rooms styled to look like ship's cabins: the Fisherman's Cave, the Pilot Room, the Sun Deck, the Main Salon, the Cabin Nooks, the Upper Deck, and the Porthole Counter. The eatery was also known for a wooden mermaid, which was positioned at its entrance.

Although, I do not recall a mermaid being mentioned in the famous poem written about Columbus' first voyage into the unknown, I do clearly remember its opening words, "In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." Now, that is a better rhyme. The poem continues, "He had three ships and left from Spain; He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain." Niña, the inspiration for Bernstein's restaurant, was one of the three Spanish ships (the other two were Pinta and Santa Maria).

Niña, also called Santa Clara, was a standard caravel-type vessel built in the Ribera de Moguer estuary of the Rio Tinto--a river in southwestern Spain. Commissioned to sail the Mediterranean Sea and originally rigged with triangular sails, she was re-rigged as a caravela redonda at Las Palmas in the Canary Islands with square sails for ocean sailing. Niña and the other two ships left Palos de la Frontera on August 3rd and made landfall in the Bahamas at dawn on October 12 ,1492.

Niña made the entire First Voyage, bringing Columbus safely home from the Bahamas. She accompanied the grand fleet of the Second Voyage to Hispaniola and Columbus selected her out of seventeen ships for his flagship on an exploratory voyage to Cuba, and purchased a half share in her. She was the only vessel of the seventeen in West Indian waters to survive the hurricane of 1495, and then brought back the Admiral and 120 passengers to Spain in 1496.

Niña was then chartered for an unauthorized voyage to Rome, and was captured by a corsair when leaving the port of Cagliari, and brought to an anchor at Cape Pula, Sardinia where she was stripped of her arms and crew. The Captain, Alonso Medel, escaped with a few men, stole a boat, rowed back to Niña, cut her cables and made sail.

Niña returned to Cadiz in time to sail for Hispaniola early in 1498, as advance guard of Columbus' Third Voyage. She was lying in Santo Domingo in 1500, and last heard of making a trading voyage to the Pearl Coast in 1501. No further log of her is found in historic archives. The Niña logged a extraordinary 25,000 miles under Columbus' command.

Replicas of the three ships were built in 1893 by the Spanish government for the Columbian Naval Review, but the most well-known 4-masted replica of Niña was built by American engineer and maritime historian, John Patrick Sarsfield, beginning 1988 in Valenca, Brazil. And, it will be visiting Charleston, joined by a replica of the Pinta, beginning April 28th.

Considered the most historically correct replica, Sarsfield and a group of master shipbuilders from Bahia, Brazil, who were still using design and construction techniques dating back to the 15th Century, constructed the replica Niña out of naturally-shaped timbers taken from local forests using only adzes, axes, hand saws, and chisels.

In December 1991, the Niña left Brazil and sailed to Costa Rica on a 4000 mile unescorted maiden voyage to take part in the filming of 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Since then, the ship has visited over 300 ports in the U.S. The caravels are operated by the Columbus Foundation of the British Virgin Islands--an educational group.

The Niña and Pinta will be moored at the Charleston Harbor Resort and Marina in Mount Pleasant until a morning departure on May 9th. Walk-aboard guided tours will be available 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Fees are $8 adults, $7 senior citizens and $6 for students to age 16. Children under age 4 are free. Pinta is available for private parties and charters.

As you walk Niña's deck, let your imagination take sail. Picture yourself a crew member on that fateful voyage and reflect on what life would have been like with only a compass to guide you, working while others slept, sleeping while others worked, day after day watching for land, dreaming of trees and rocks and sand, and slurping on coo-coo clams from Coo-Coo Cove.

Unfortunately, coo-coo clams is a west coast thing--not on any Charleston menu that I am aware of. After your tour of the Niña, if you want the best clams in Charleston, try The Fig on Meeting Street. Its Razor Clam Ceviche is considered by many to be the best.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Timeless Drayton Hall Mysteries--The Surreal And The Real

Originally a fruit orchard, Drayton Hall was built somewhere around 1738, thus making it over 265 years old. Considered one of the earliest and finest examples of Georgian-Palladian architecture in the United States, it is part of the most significant, undisturbed historic landscapes in America--of course use of the word undisturbed is dissolved in a glass of salty brine and consumed with a grain of rice. Inside, the amazing and timeless wood and plaster carvings are a testimony to the artful skills of the master craftsmen of the day and the soul of its owners. To us, the house is a surviving relic to look at in curiosity and wonderment, but to the people of the era, every nuance incorporated into its design had a very special meaning.

With a history reaching back hundreds of years and filled with the lives of many generations, some visitors have presumptuously asked whether Drayton Hall is haunted. Unlike many old landmarks in and around Charleston, ghostly sightings are found no where in the solitary Ashley River estate's narrative. In my overactive imagination, viewing the darkening house from under one of its old oaks near dusk reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe's commentary when coming upon the House of Usher. Lending validation to my optic, if you were to ask prior visitors and staff members that haunting question, they will say with firm conviction, "Absolutely yes." In 2003, Drayton Hall was featured on an episode of America's Most Haunted Places that aired on The Travel Channel with the claim "original family members are said to still walk" through the house supported by interviews it had with staff members. Still, with equal conviction, there are others who will say otherwise.

Drayton Hall is unquestionably not without its mysteries, both surreal and real. The most recent and famous occurred in 2007 when one of its staff members received an anonymous package containing the photograph of a watercolor painting of Drayton Hall purported to be date back to 1765. The envelope it arrived in was simply postmarked 22602-6754 with the words ATT: Back in The Day. The numbers were found to be a Winchester, VA zip code.

Up to that moment, no 18th-century image of Drayton Hall had ever been found. The earliest dated to c. 1845. The mystery was deepened further by what they saw depicted in the watercolor. It presented an image of Drayton Hall never seen before. It showed the Palladian brick building surrounded by low colonnades. Inspired by this revelation, archaeologists dug into the museum's lawn, where 18th-century foundation marks were found, suggesting the 1765 drawing of a U-shaped colonnade was an accurate portrayal. The question still remained as to the authenticity of the watercolor's dating. Now, locating the sender to examine the original became critical.

A staff member called the post office in Winchester to ask if they could identify the exact location of the 9-digit zip code, but do to privacy policies, they politely refused. A Drayton family member became involved and soon after, a friend found that the "6754" referred to Bedford Drive in Winchester. Names of the Bedford Drive residents were acquired through research and a trip to Winchester was made. Handing out Drayton Hall brochures and copies of the watercolor, several residents were contacted and given the material, but some were not at home and the owner was not found. A few days later, one neighbor showed the paperwork to a heating and cooling contractor who turned out to be the watercolor's owner.

In an interview with the New York Times, the contractor explained he had been surfing for Web information about a dozen watercolors he had inherited from his grandparents. He typed in the handwritten caption from one image, "Drayton Hall," and realized that the plantation still stood. He called Drayton Hall on a Sunday afternoon to tell them about his discovery, but a volunteer answering the phone refused to believe him--a decision that would eventually come back to haunt the receiver. So, he sent the package anonymously, just on a whim, which is where the mystery began.

The contractor did finally meet with staff members of Drayton Hall and the watercolor was authenticated. The mystery was solved. It was part of a collection of 18th-century watercolors depicting American and Caribbean landscapes and buildings. The Swiss-born painter, Pierre Eugène Du Simitière, traveled in the West Indies and settled in Philadelphia just before the American Revolution. As to how they ended up in the hand's of the contractor's grandparents was not discussed and still remains a mystery.

Time unrelentingly changes things, both virtuous and unpleasant. With that being said, something virtuous is coming to Drayton Hall. A Visitor Center is presently in the works and due to open in 2018. At present, all of the plantation's original artifacts—including furniture, are in storage. The new Sally Reahard Visitor Center will include an orientation hall, education center, and exhibition galleries.

Whoever may still be walking the empty rooms of the grand old house will find this news uplifting, if a place to sit is what they are looking for. All the original artifacts will be moved from storage and displayed in the Visitor Center's exhibition gallery where visitors will be able to view them for the first time since Drayton Hall first opened to the public.

There will also be a area called the Interpretive Gardens, which will feature historically accurate botanical plantings evoking the Drayton family's scientific and international connections during the 18th and 19th centuries. The visitors center will be screened off from the house by the stand of mature trees to the left of the house with a few new ones added. Another important design element is a new pathway mapped out by landscape architect Sheila Wertimer. The path will give visitors a more dramatic first glimpse of the house.

If you are looking for the complete southern experience, from the moment you enter the gate and drive up the narrow causeway toward the columned portico's of the front entrance, you sense a change in time, a transference of today into yesterday. And when you climb the stone stairs facing the Ashley River and step through the door, the sudden rush of air carries you back to the era of English gardens, rice fields and plantation living. You will treasure the tour and the pictures. Be careful not to bump into anything, real or unreal.

For more tour information and pictures go to A Day At Majestic Drayton Hall By The Ashley River--Preservation At Its Best
For the complete story of the watercolor go to Drayton Hall: Watercolor Mystery Solved! (So Far.)