The Charleston Light: A Story Of Past And Present

The lighthouse on Sullivan’s Island provides more than direction to those on the sea – it’s a marker of history and community to those that live among it. By Amy S. Mercer.

(Photo provided by National Park Service)

(Photo provided by National Park Service)

Lighthouses line the eastern shore, from Maine to Florida. People travel long distances along twisty coastal roads to reach the tall, stark towers that guard our shores.

Climbing the ladders inside the narrow walls of a lighthouse is an adventure, and so too, is coming down from the top to stand beside the lighthouse and listen to the waves crash against the shore.


As a child, I spent many summers in Maine daydreaming about life as a lighthouse keeper after watching the cold ocean barrel toward the lighthouse and swiftly recede. Romance, mystery and a little bit of fear are wrapped together in lighthouse daydreams. Those who have been lucky enough to sleep beside the ocean and watch the beam of a lighthouse light pulse in and out against their bedroom walls understand the allure. Those who’ve navigated their route with the steady beat of a lighthouse also know the allure.


The lighthouse on Sullivan’s Island is a marker of history and home for residents of the island.


 The first Sullivan’s Island lighthouse was destroyed during the Civil War. After the surrender of forces in Charleston in 1865, a temporary skeletal light was established, against the owner’s wishes, on the roof of a private house on Sullivan’s Island.

Trevon Scott and John Dugre inspect the equipment they use to maintain the light. (Photo by Steve Rosamilia)

Trevon Scott and John Dugre inspect the equipment they use to maintain the light. (Photo by Steve Rosamilia)

In 1868, Congress approved $15,000 to re-establish lighthouses that had been destroyed in the war. The lack of lighthouses was crucial for sailors, because aligning two fixed points on land provides a navigator with a line of position called a “range.” Ranges can be used to precisely align a vessel within a narrow channel such as a river. The closer light is referred to as the “beacon” or “front range;” the furthest away is called the “rear range.” The rear range light is almost always taller than the front.


The United States Lighthouse Board wanted to construct a pair of range lights on Sullivan’s Island, the government owned land at Fort Moultrie, so it was decided to place the lighthouses there. The first range guided vessels through the South Channel, whereas the second range guided vessels through a channel between the shore and the south jetty, which was under construction. In the Annual Reports of the Lighthouse Board, these sets of range lights became known as the Sullivan’s Island Range Lighthouses. The range lights at Sullivan’s Island were decommissioned in 1933, leaving only the Morris Island Lighthouse nearer James Island to mark the way to Charleston’s shores.


 To continue to mark the Charleston Harbor, construction of a new lighthouse had begun in 1960 on the northern side of the harbor. The government had established a lifesaving station on the island in 1895, and it was decided to use that location for the lighthouse. A group of engineers was struggling to create a design and “making a mess of things.” “My officer called me up and said, ‘why don’t you give it a try?’” architect Jack Graham says, who was working in D.C. for the U.S. Coast Guard at the time.


Graham, now in his eighties, was 23 years-old when he designed The Charleston Light and just a few years out of college. He’d majored in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1950s and studied under Louis Kahn, who was one of the most important architects of the 20th century. In 1958, a year after he graduated, Graham enlisted in the Coast Guard and went to boot camp in Cape May where he worked on designs for the Cape May lighthouse. From there he was recruited to work in the Coast Guard’s headquarters in D.C. When he was asked to take over the project in Charleston, he used the lessons he’d learned from Kahn to create a triangular sha­pe perched on a hexagonal base and with a hexagonal lantern level. ‑ is shape would be capable of withstanding hurricane-force 125-mph winds.

Graham was discharged soon a­fter he completed the project and says he never got credit for his design. “It wasn’t built for two years and no one contacted me to let me know. I found out when I saw a picture of the lighthouse in a magazine.”  

The lighthouse was first illuminated on June 15, 1962 and was said to be “one of the most powerful lighthouses in the Western Hemisphere.” Its beam was produced by six separate lights mounted on an aluminum base, which weighed 1,800 pounds. ‑ e six lights produced 28 million candlepower, which was said to be visible for 70 miles at sea. “That’s where the saying ‘the lights never set on Sullivan’s Island’ comes from,” Graham laughs. It was painted red and white but according to Graham, the paint quickly turned to a pinkish color that everyone hated.

Residents complained about the bright lights and the paint color and their complaints were heard. ‑ e light was reduced to 1.5 million candlepower in 1972. Even with this reduction, the light is still visible for 26 miles on a clear night.


 In 1975, the Coast Guard automated the lighthouse and removed the keeper. In 1986, the National Park Service took over most of the lifesaving service property for use as temporary housing, offices and storage, however, it did not get ownership of the lighthouse.

In 2008, the lighthouse was transferred from the Coast Guard to the National Park Service. “‑ e Coast Guard sold o most of the lighthouses by that time because they were too expensive to maintain,” David Browne, Officer in Charge, USCG ANT Charleston, says.

 Today, the Coast Guard continues to check and maintain the navigational light itself (see sidebar), but the National Park Service is who ensures the lighthouse remains standing and keeps its place as a local structure of historical importance.

The lighthouse isn’t open to the public, but the Park Service celebrates National Lighthouse Day each year by opening the grounds and nearby U.S. Life Saving Station boathouse to the public. ‑ is year the event is scheduled for August 6, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.

The boathouse is of interest also. One of the few remaining historic lifesaving stations on the East Coast, it is slated to become a museum commemorating the Life Saving Service, which became the U.S. Coast Guard.

In this time of constant change, it’s reassuring to look to markers of history like the Sullivan’s Island lighthouse and its historical surrounds. We may no longer be able to scale the ladder to the top and access the view from above, but we can gather around it. We can gaze up at the black and white tower and daydream. And sometime soon, we can wander inside a newly minted boathouse museum to view archives of our maritime history.