Exploring Charleston’s Historic Lighthouses


By: Staff Editor, Charleston Harbor Tours
April 04, 2016

A Charleston SC historic harbor tour offer the visitor a unique vantage point to experience the Battery, Rainbow Row, the Holy City Skyline, Patriot’s Point, Fort Sumter… the list goes on and on.  A Charleston harbor tour can also include beautiful views and fascinating history of two examples of Charleston’s maritime heritage, the Morris Island Lighthouse and the Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse.

Lighthouse Lore
Lighthouses have a unique hold on the imagination. To those on dry land, they are a lonely sentry keeping watch out on some rocky point, literally at land’s end. To the seafarer, the lighthouse might have been a distant first sign that they were Almost Home.  When the skies were threatening and the waters rough, the lighthouse beacon was a sign of safety and hope.

Mythology aside, the lighthouse was an indispensable tool of daily life for maritime communities such as Charleston SC.  Lighthouses were and are important structures in coastal regions, marking dangerous areas of rocky coastline and hazardous reefs. They provide safe entry into a harbor. They also provide an important aid in navigation to maritime pilots, as well as aerial pilots.

Morris Island Lighthouse: The Original Harbor Sentry
There has been a Morris Island Lighthouse, in one form or another, since the 1700s. The current lighthouse standing at the southern side of the entrance to Charleston Harbor, has been in place since 1876.

The land, however, hasn’t held steady. After the construction of new jetties in the 1880s, currents began to change, causing erosion of the shoreline. As a result the Morris Island Lighthouse, which once stood a quarter-mile inland, now stands several hundred feet offshore. Worse, it has begun to lean.   

In 1962, after nearly 90 years of service, the Morris Island Lighthouse “passed the torch” to the newly completed Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse. Today the lighthouse is a popular tourist attraction – by boat - as well as an item of concern, as conservationists work to preserve the tower and prevent it from being reclaimed by the sea.  

Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse: Still Keeping Watch
On the opposite side of the entrance to Charleston Harbor stands the Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse. At just over half a century in age, it is one of the newest in the United States. Also known as the Charleston Light, this lighthouse is noteworthy for its distinctive shape. Instead of the classic cone that tapers as it rises, the Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse is triangular and straight.

This design is believed to help the lighthouse withstand high winds. Another difference? Unlike most other lighthouses, where the poor keeper must climb that long circular stairwell to reach the top, the Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse has an elevator!

Today the Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse is active and operated by the US Coast Guard. Tourists can visit by foot on Sullivan’s Island, or view it by boat as part of a historic harbor tour.

The Future of the Lighthouse
Today, most lighthouses have become obsolete, due to high maintenance costs and the advent of modern satellite positioning technology.  However, we are learning more and more about how vulnerable our electronic systems are to cyber hackers. So, just as the US Navy is once again teaching sailors to use sextants and to navigate by the stars, maybe we will see a renewed interest in keeping and maintaining working lighthouses along our coasts.

Visit Charleston’s Historic Lighthouses
That’s a brief look at historic lighthouses, an important part of the maritime heritage of Charleston SC. But this isn’t the whole story. Charleston visitors will learn more about the Morris Island Lighthouse and Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse on Charleston Harbor Tours 90-minute historic harbor tour or aboard the 84′ tall ship, The Schooner Pride. Book your historic today!


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