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Saturday, August 28, 1999  —  Charleston Post and Courier

Since it was built in 1876, the Morris Island Lighthouse has withstood hurricanes, a powerful earthquake, and 60 years of battering from ocean waves.

Just how much longer it will stand, stranded in the sea between Folly Beach and Morris Island, no one knows.

"It's an endangered lighthouse. The time for action is now," Robert New, co-chairman of Save the Light Inc., said last week.

This week, Save the Light will call on the state to assume ownership of the lighthouse, a move New said is critical to its future.

A recent structural study of the lighthouse proved inconclusive. Submerged wooden beams that help support the massive, 158-foot-high brick structure are infested with worms and rotting, but it's not clear how much longer they will last.

Engineers estimate the cost of stabilizing and restoring the lighthouse, a National Historic Landmark, at between $1.5 million and $2 million.

The grass-roots Save the Light group bought the lighthouse for $75,000 from a private businessman, paid off the mortgage, and raised an additional $150,000, New said.

But the non-profit organization doesn't have the resources to raise millions, and as a private organization it cannot qualify for federal funding, New said.

The S.C. Legislature set aside $500,000 this year for the lighthouse, but payment is contingent upon public ownership.

"This lighthouse means a great deal not only to this community but to all people of this state," New said. "We believe this is a legitimate function and proper role of state government".

Though Save the Light formally will ask the S.C. Heritage Trust Advisory Board this week to vote in favor of taking over the lighthouse, the board will probably not vote, said board director Tom Kohlsaat.

"They will probably have questions for Save the Light before considering to take it on," Kohlsaat said.

The board just received the structural study of the lighthouse, and many questions remain, Kohlsaat said.

Kohlsaat noted concerns raised earlier about the condition of the lighthouse, the cost of maintaining it, and liability.

The lighthouse is a valuable cultural and historic resource that should be preserved and maintained, said Terry Ferguson, chairman of the Heritage Trust board, which protects historic properties.

"But there are major concerns that we requested be addressed," he said.

New said the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, the S.C. Budget and Control Board and local state legislators also would have to approve the state's ownership of the lighthouse before it's final.

Gov. Jim Hodges has not taken a position on whether the state should own the lighthouse, a spokesman said Friday.

Lowcountry lawmakers firmly support the move, and state Reps. Lynn Seithel, R-Charleston, and Henry Brown, R-Hanahan, were instrumental in getting the $500,000 in state money.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has proposed further structural study and measures to control erosion around the lighthouse, but it can't do the work until the lighthouse is in public hands, New said.

In July, divers tried to inspect the submerged foundation but couldn't get past massive slabs of concrete poured around the lighthouse as the sea began to surround it in 1939.

"The condition of the majority of the lighthouse foundation is unknown and is subject to speculation," concluded a report from The Sheridan Corp., a Charleston engineering firm.

It is known that the lighthouse leans by 0.7 degrees, although it's unclear if that has increased in recent years. The list is not serious. By comparison, a lighthouse at Cape Romain lists by 5 degrees.

Most importantly, the lighthouse can be stabilized to stand for another 100 years, said Toni Berenyi, president of Berenyi Inc., a Charleston engineering firm.

"If you can move the Cape Hatteras Light inland, you can save the Morris Island Light. It's just a question of whether we have the will, and we do," New said.

Berenyi proposes to drive pilings around the lighthouse foundation, pour additional concrete, and place large rocks at the base of the new foundation to deflect wave erosion.

New said that after the restoration is complete, a dock could be built at the lighthouse for boats to tie up. Currently, the lighthouse is surrounded by dangerous and slippery concrete and rocks.

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