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Charleston Harbor Lighthouses

Charleston, South Carolina

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Lighthouse & Lifesaving Station

Sullivan's Island Lighthouse and Lifesaving Station

lat/long = 32.757947,-79.843263
lat/long = 32.695345,-79.88363

Sullivan's Island Lighthouse

The lighthouse on Sullivan's Island is an oddity. It doesn't look like any other lighthouse that I've ever seen before or since. Sure it's a towering structure and it throws light far out to sea, but its appearance is downright strange. Most noticeably the tower is shaped in a triangular fashion like an upended Toblerone box instead of the more typical cylinder or tapered cone. This unusual shape allows it to withstand gales and hurricanes in a more aerodynamic manner, and hopefully survive when other structures might fail. No masonry was involved in its construction either. Rater, it's made of concrete and steel, clad in an aluminum skin.

With these feature considered, one might conclude that the Sullivan's Island Lighthouse first graced the shoreline fairly recently, and that would be correct. The tower, initially lit in 1962, was the last major lighthouse built by the United States government. It rises 140 feet on its own with a focal plane of 163 when factoring its surrounding terrain. Also, because of it's recent construction its never had a Fresnel lens. It has always had modern optics.

The older building in the foreground is a lifesaving station built in 1898. Lighthouse staff lived here until automation arrived in 1975. Eventually the entire property was transferred from the U.S. Coast Guard to the National Park Service, although the Coast Guard continues to maintain the actual light. The property is not generally open to the public, and in fact there were a bunch of government No Trespassing signs all around. People are free to walk the perimeter and snap as many photos as they like though, which is exactly what we did.


Top of Lighthouse

The Lantern Room

Even the lantern room looks different. Yes, that's an air conditioning vent below the top set of windows. How many lighthouse keepers enjoyed the luxury of air conditioning in those older structures? Also notice the various electronics, satellite dishes and microwave relays crowning the tower. Items such as these would seem inappropriate on an antique structure but they look perfectly benign atop the Sullivan's Island lighthouse. Another unusual feature of this tower is the elevator that was installed as part of the original design that whisked tenders up from ground level. Again, something not seen regularly on a lighthouse.


Modern Lighthouse from a Distance

As Viewed from Fort Sumter

This is the view of the Sullivan's Island Lighthouse from the middle of Charleston Harbor at Fort Sumter. To me it looked more like an air traffic control tower than a lighthouse. It's not hard to imagine a runway down there, but indeed it's solely a lighthouse. One cannot underestimate the importance of it either. Charleston is one of the busiest container ports in the southeastern United States. All traffic must traverse the narrow shipping channel between Sullivan's Island and Fort Sumter. Getting a proper fix on the channel is vital to these large cargo ships, and the lighthouse provides a complement or backup to shipboard navigational tools.


Carolina Lighthouse

Morris Island Lighthouse

On the other hand, the Morris Island lighthouse has the classic appearance of what a lighthouse "should" look like. This long-range photograph taken from several miles away at Fort Sumter doesn't do it much justice, but you can just make out the alternating black and white horizontal bands painted onto masonry if you look closely. This was the third lighthouse to be built on the site. The one preceding was destroyed during the Civil War. It took a few more years for this version to be constructed and finally the light returning in 1876. The 150 foot brick tower housed a first order Fresnel lens, replaced by modern optics in the 1930's, and finally fell dark when the Sullivan's Island lighthouse opened in 1962.

There was a huge problem with the Morris Island Lighthouse that hastened its replacement. The island was washing away. A jetty system constructed to deepen the Charleston Harbor shipping channel exacerbated the erosion. When man messes with one area it often changes another, and that's what happened here. Originally, when built, the lighthouse stood about a half-mile from the coast. By the 1930's it was at water's edge and today it stands alone on its massive concrete foundation more than a quarter-mile offshore. The support buildings constructed on the lighthouse grounds have long since been removed, and indeed, would now sit underwater if they still existed. So much for Morris Island.

People are working hard to preserve and stabilize the Morris Island Lighthouse before it topples into the Atlantic Ocean. A local non-profit organization called "Save the Light" bought the structure in 1999 and worked an arrangement to transfer ownership to the State of South Carolina at no cost. In return, Save the Light retains responsibility for its preservation. The foundation supports its effort through extensive fundraising. We wish them well.

Readers who have an interest in lighthouses might also want to check my Lighthouse Index