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.

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