FOLLY BEACH — Any one of the stairs could break, and the volunteers know it as they edge up the 16-story-high lighthouse tower.
The spiraling cast-iron steps, more than a century old, are rusting. Cast iron doesn't give when it comes apart, it snaps.
People who climb the 203 steps up the Morris Island Lighthouse for the first time usually are out of breath when they reach the top. When Save the Light board member Al Hitchcock asks why, the answer is simple: “I think I held it all the way up.”
The steps might be the most telling sign of the state of the iconic, ocean-swept lighthouse in the inlet between its namesake island and Folly Beach. A decade-long, volunteer-led effort has shored it up from collapse. But it's far from saved.
Sometime this spring, a boatload of prospective contractors will be carried to the chancy landing platform in the roil of inlet shoal waves, to bid on work restoring the ironwork, the tower windows and the glass of the lighthouse lantern, or signal light room at the top, as well as refurbishing and painting the works. It will be the final phase bringing the structure to the starting point of preservation. The work is expected to cost more than $2 million.
Already, $5 million worth of work has supported the rotting foundation and ringed it with a cofferdam. The leaning tower hasn't moved an inch since that work was finished in 2010.
The effort clambers on. The maintenance jobs are unrelenting. The heart of the effort now is finding ways to pay for that next round of work. Save The Light has only about $500,000 remaining.
But with the lighthouse shored up, donors are harder to find. Maybe the most successful effort has been the step memorials. Donors can dedicate the restoration of one of those 203 cast-iron stairs for $5,000. So far, 35 steps have been dedicated.
The dedications are to be scrolled on a glass plate that Save The Light organizers hope to place on a shoreside viewing platform near the lighthouse.
Something about the romance of the enduring lighthouse draws people who want to make a memory that lasts.
“I tell them this is an old lighthouse that's been here all these years and weathered all those storms,” said Save The Light board member Betty O'Brien, who heads up the step memorial effort.
Save The Light treads on, step by step.
“We've got a lot of plans, but it's a slow process,” Hitchcock said. “I tell people, this is a light that's 136 years old. It went 50 years without maintenance. We've only owned 13 years. I know people want to see things going on, they want to see cranes out there, but frankly, we're not there yet.”
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on Twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.