OFF MORRIS ISLAND -- The sign says "Danger, Stay Clear of This Area," but it doesn't apply to the few dozen workers who are spending this summer saving the Morris Island Lighthouse.
Six days a week, they arrive by boat and scamper onto a makeshift set of docks, ladders and barges surrounding the brick landmark.
They work 13 hours a day to finish the second phase of its foundation repair, a $2 million project that should ensure the lighthouse can weather nature's worst storms.
Specifically, they're installing 68 concrete micropiles -- the same technology used recently to stabilize Italy's Leaning Tower of Pisa.
These new pilings, about 8 inches in diameter and about 60 feet deep, will replace the old wooden pilings that have been eaten up by Teredo worms, actually small saltwater clams known as "termites of the sea."
For Al Hitchcock, chairman of the nonprofit group Save the Light Inc., the work is a wonderful sight to behold.
"We were really worried for a couple of years about it being undermined and simply falling over," he said.
The challenging part
Bill Snow, owner of Palmetto Gunite Construction, said the only way to know how compromised the current foundation is by the Teredo worms would be to tear it down and take a look.
"So we have to assume that it is so compromised we can't count on it," he said.
Vibrating 68 of the 8-inch diameter pilings into the sand, about 60 feet down, will provide essentially a new, sturdy foundation.
Each pile is designed to support 75 tons, though a stress test last week went well and showed they could support 150 tons. The lighthouse weighs about 4,000 tons. That work is relatively easy. The more difficult task is ferrying the workers and several tons of supplies to the offshore site each day.
Even on the calmest day, one-foot swells can jostle small boats against the work platforms and temporary docks.
While crews dredged about 15,000 tons of nearby sand and dumped it into the interior of the cofferdam, everything else -- concrete, re-enforcing rods and other materials-- must be hauled to the barge erected next to the lighthouse.
From there, a crane swings it into the tight work area.
Even water needs to be ferried to the site because using the saltwater would rust the steel re-enforcing rods, causing the new pilings to crack and fail.
Deliveries must be carefully timed to keep the work on track.
"The barge can only carry so much weight, and the crane takes up most of it," Snow said. "We couldn't do this job without a cell phone."
Along with the new pilings, Palmetto Gunite is dredging about 30,000 tons of sand to place within the cofferdam, filling it to about 18 inches from the top. About half of that already is in place; the rest will be put in after the pilings are done.
The work also will include the installation of four inclinometers, special monitors sunk deep into the ground to detect any movement.
"Before you can tell on top, they'll be able to tell in the soil if the soil is moving," Snow said.
Hitchcock likened it to a heart patient who is wired up. "We still have some sufficient cracks in it," he said. "As we're doing the piles underneath, we're being sure something doesn't shift underneath the lighthouse. We can read that remotely."
The work also will include a small new dock measuring about 12 feet by 24 feet. The lighthouse won't be open to the public, but the dock will help its caretakers tie up their boats.
"That's kind of a minor thing," Snow said, "but that's what everybody will see when we leave."
Last week, WPC Engineering completed a lengthy stress test on the concrete being used for the pilings. Snow said the work has gone slowly -- only about seven pilings have been sunk so far -- pending the outcome of that test. The results were good.
That was good news because the ongoing work is racing against the clock. The contract calls for work to wrap up by Sept. 1, but the only penalty for missing that deadline is the exposure the contractors' equipment will endure during the heart of the Atlantic hurricane season.
"We don't want to be out there in hurricane season," Snow said. "We'll be out of there by Sept. 1."
The final phase will repair cracks in the masonry, restore the glass in the beacon and paint the original white and black bands on the outside.
But that will have to wait until Save the Light Inc. can raise more money.
The possibility of any further government grants -- the current phase was financed in part by state money and a $100,000 Save America's Treasures grant from the National Park Service -- is slim to none.
Meanwhile, the scope and projected price tag of the next phase remain to be decided. Hitchcock said he hopes those plans will take shape next year.
The money ran out before the current phase could include a concrete cap. Instead, Palmetto Gunite is collecting hardened cylinders of concrete grout and will try to use that for the base around the light instead of hauling them back to shore and throwing them away.
"We've used up about all our money on this phase," he said. "We need more money, more members, more people donating. We need to encourage people not to think the project is over.
"We've just now gotten to the point of thinking it's going to be stable and will be there for a while."
Keeping a light on
The current Morris Island Lighthouse is the third or fourth built on what once was the middle of three islands. Here are some key dates.
1673: Just three years after the Carolina colony began, settlers erect a raised metal pan near this site, fill it with pitch and light it at night.
1767: The first real lighthouse, about 42 feet high, is built.
1838: A second lighthouse, this one 102 feet tall and featuring a revolving light, replaces the first.
1862: Confederate forces destroy the lighthouse so Union troops, who are closing in on Charleston, can't use it as a lookout.
1876: About a decade after the war, a new brick lighthouse is built 158 feet tall.
1887: The lighthouse survives the great Charleston earthquake, though the temblor does result in a slight lean that persists to this day.
1938: Though the lighthouse was built about 1,200 feet inland from the shoreline, it now stands at the water's edge. The light is automated, so its keeper, whose house also is threatened, no longer is needed.
1962: The Morris Island Lighthouse goes dark as a new, state-of-the-art lighthouse is completed on Sullivan's Island.
1965: The federal government sells the Morris Island Lighthouse to a private owner who thinks it will complement a campground he hopes to develop nearby.
1996: Lowcountry lighthouse supporters form a nonprofit group now known as Save the Light.
1999: Save the Light buys the lighthouse for $75,000 and begins rallying support for its stabilization and restoration.
2000: Save the Light sells the lighthouse to the state Department of Natural Resources.
2007: The first phase of the foundation work, including new steel sheet piling around a base further protected by large granite stones, begins and wraps up the next year.
2010: The second phase -- installing 68 new micropiles to replace the 264 rotting yellow pine pilings -- begins and is projected to be finished by Labor Day.