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Keepers Shore Up Lighthouse Support
Sunday, October 25, 1998  —  Charleston Post and Courier

Caption: The Morris Island light stands off the coast at Folly Beach surrounded by ocean. About 25 "lighthouse keepers" struggle to keep it from falling into the ocean.

From her porch on James Island, Sylvia Miller can see the lighthouse across Clark Sound.

"It's just a beautiful sight to look at", she says.

In most respects, the eight people who met at her house one night last week have little in common.

One is a retired state employee who remembers when wild hogs ran loose below the lighthouse.

Another is a general contractor who will not go to work without first admiring the morning view of the lighthouse from the back window of his home.

Another builds pet beds. Miller is a carpet designer.

But they share a passion - to save the Morris Island Lighthouse.

They are the lighthouse keepers.

They have met off and on for two years. At each meeting, the older members share memories of the lighthouse while others share their research of the historic landmark that rises 158 feet above the water in an inlet off Folly Beach.

The members of the Morris Island Lighthouse Committee, which consists of about 25 people, have contacted restoration specialists and government officials, checked into grants, considered petitions, and done everything they can think of to prevent the lighthouse from falling into the Atlantic Ocean.

Built in 1876, the lighthouse no doubt can weather many more storms. But members of the group wonder how many more.

Robert New, who claims to have the best view of the lighthouse from his home on Folly Beach, believes the lighthouse is listing.

"This lighthouse has survived against all odds the battering of all storms over the years and it deserves a group to protect it", said New, co-chairman of the lighthouse committee.

Johnny Ohlandt, a retired state employee, always swings his boat by the lighthouse when he visits the island he owns nearby. The changes he has noticed over the years worry him.

"It's definitely eroding more", he said of the base of the lighthouse, under water most of the time. "What needs to be done is first fix the bottom of it to keep the structure from falling into the water".

Efforts to save the lighthouse date at least to the 1930s, when lighthouse keepers debated how to protect it as the island it sat upon continued to erode.

The island eventually washed away.

Ocean waves now batter the lighthouse relentlessly.

More than 20 years ago, Goose Creek businessman S.E. "Speedy" Felkel bought the lighthouse from the government.

He refused to sell it, but Columbia businessman Paul Gunter obtained it in a foreclosure suit two years ago.

When Gunter agreed to sell the lighthouse, the committee jumped into action again, arguing that Gunter's offer was the best opportunity yet to place the lighthouse in public ownership and give it the care it deserves.

Committee members have tried to convince the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission to buy the lighthouse. The agency, however, worried about liability and wanted to know first how much it would cost to preserve it.

That cost could be determined by a study of its foundation. The Army Corps of Engineers has said it would conduct a study, but first the lighthouse would need to be in public hands or at least on the verge of being bought by the government.

On Friday, committee members met with park commissioners again to request their help.

The committee's recent efforts coincide with a Public Broadcasting Series documentary on lighthouses across the country.

On Monday night, the series will feature South Atlantic lighthouses, including the Morris Island Lighthouse.

New believes there's a growing national fascination with lighthouses. "It's hard to put a finger on why that is, but it's certainly there", he said.

As a case in point, New and other members of the committee point out the debate that continues to rage in North Carolina over whether to move the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

Congress last week appropriated $9.8 million to move the lighthouse one-half mile inland.

Robert Magwood, a committee member and retired Shem Creek shrimp trawler captain, wishes the Morris Island Lighthouse received as much attention. It's hard to understand, he said, given its history and the thousands of captains it has guided to Charleston Harbor during the past 100 years.

For when he saw the Morris Island Lighthouse, he knew he was nearly home, Magwood said. "The first thing you would see was the top of that light, and then you would have your bearings".

©1998  Charleston Post and Courier  —  All Rights Reserved.
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