Just off the northeast end of Folly Island stands the first Charleston lighthouse. Once surrounded with numerous buildings and land, the Morris Island lighthouse is now completely surrounded by water.
Designed by Samuel Cardy and built by Adam Miller and Thomas Young, the tower was cylindrical with a height of 102 feet. A revolving lamp in the lantern room had a range of about 12 miles, but a Fresnel lens was installed in 1858.
Three become one:
Although the current lighthouse was completed in 1876, its history dates back to the 1700s. Back then, three islands existed between Folly Island and Sullivan’s Island: Middle Bay Island, Morrison Island, and Cummings Point. It was in 1767 that Charleston’s first lighthouse was built on Middle Bay Island.
Problems arose in the early 1800s when the channel leading to Charleston began to shift, causing tidal currents. The sand began to build up and the three islands merged into a single island. Since the middle island was called Morrison Island, the single island took on the name and was later shortened to Morris Island.
The lighthouse was utilized until the Civil War in 1861 when it was blown up by the fleeing Confederate soldiers so the northern troops could not use it. After the Civil War in 1873, Congress allowed the rebuilding of the lighthouse, then called the Charleston Main Light. Completed in 1876, the lighthouse stood 400 yards away from the original one and was built 161-feet tall with a pattern based off the Bodie Light off the Outer Banks in North Carolina.
The island contained 15 buildings, including the keeper’s quarters, various outbuildings, and a one-room schoolhouse. Each week the teacher came from the mainland on Monday and stayed on the island to teach until Friday before returning to the mainland.
Down to nothing:
Problems arose again when the channel shifted toward the end of the 1800’s, threatening the Charleston Harbor. In order to save the channel, several jetties had to be built, which changed the tidal currents, causing severe erosion on Morris Island.
The island shrank more and more until 1938 when many of the buildings were either destroyed or moved. In 1938, the lighthouse was automated and the Fresnel lens was removed. Since that date, the land has eroded away to nothing, leaving the lighthouse completely surrounded by water.
The Sullivan’s Island lighthouse replaced the Morris Island lighthouse in 1962 and the Morris Island lighthouse was decommissioned.
The U.S. Coast Guard planned to demolish the lighthouse in recent years, but members of the community petitioned to save the structure.
To protect it from further erosion, the Coast Guard built an underground steel wall around the lighthouse to protect it from further erosion.
Today the lighthouse is now privately owned and efforts are made to preserve the historical lighthouse. You can help the cause and learn more about the project by visiting the Morris Island Lighthouse Project. To see the lighthouse, you can take a left onto East Ashley Avenue from Center Street/Folly Road and continue until the street ends, where you can park and walk about a quarter of a mile to the beach.