Lighting Charleston’s Waterways: A Look at Charleston’s Lighthouses

Lighting Charleston’s Waterways: A Look at Charleston’s Lighthouses

Image to the left of the Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse taken from


One of the most famous lighthouses in history existed during the reign of Cleopatra. The Lighthouse of Alexandria was the focal point of the ancient city of Alexandria, built on the Island of Pharos in 280 B.C., to serve as the port’s landmark. For many centuries the lighthouse was the tallest manmade structure on earth. Classical writers identified it as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. This just gives you an idea of how far back lighthouses were used!

Lighthouses are important structures in coastal regions, used to mark 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. Two historic lighthouses in the Charleston area are the Morris Island Lighthouse and the Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse.

Constructed by the U.S. Government in the 1960s, the Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse is quite unique for the shape in which it was built. The triangular shape with one of it’s points directed toward the ocean, allows it to withstand winds of up to 125 mph. This lighthouse was first activated in 1962. It does not have the classic “charm” of an old New England lighthouse, for example, but it does offer some more modern qualities for the lighthouse keepers. They are treated to air conditioning and a 74-second trip to the top of the lighthouse, via elevator. After that they must scale a 25-foot vertical ladder to reach the very top where the powerful light source is held, called the lantern room.

The designer of the lighthouse was a person by the name of Jack Graham who was obsessed with triangles. He completed his architectural training at the University of Pennsylvania in 1957. A year or so after graduating, he learned he would soon be drafted, so he signed up with the Coast Guard. He was asked to come up with a design for the lighthouse and due to his love for triangles, and the fact that a triangle is the strongest structural shape, he came up with the design for the Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse.

The Morris Island Lighthouse is another one of Charleston’s historic lighthouses. The lighthouses that have stood on Morris Island have withstood all the forces nature could offer. However, although man has built them, man has also destroyed them. Ruined in the War Between the States, the lighthouse was rebuilt and destroyed again before the end of the Civil War. It was not until 1873 that the lighthouse was rebuilt to the structure that now stands at the present day. Before the 1800s Morris Island was actually three islands, but due to erosion, Morris Island became one larger, single island. In 1880 the lighthouse stood 2,700 feet from the edge of the water. Today, the lighthouse is it’s own island. The Morris Island Lighthouse is no longer active, but the Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse is.

Image above of the Morris Island Lighthouse taken from


Lighthouses were once widely used, but they are now becoming more obsolete, mostly due to the fact that they are too costly to maintain and are being replaced with modern electronic and navigational equipment. Many of these now historic structures do not function as the primary warning for danger, but are now run by preservation groups and maintained through donations.

Witness both the Morris Island Lighthouse and Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse from the water on Charleston Harbor Tours‘ 90-historic harbor tour or aboard the 84’ tall ship, The Schooner Pride. Because our 90-minute historic tour is narrated, you’ll discover even more interesting facts about the Sullivan’s Island and Morris Island lighthouses!

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