Lighthouse under new ownership

Nate Johnson and other National Park Service employees leave Sullivan's Island Lighthouse on Thursday after talking with the Coast Guard about the landmark.

Tyrone Walker

SULLIVAN'S ISLAND — Like a new homeowner flush with excitement and anxiety, Bob Dodson accepted the keys Thursday to Charleston Light, one of the nation's most unique lighthouses.

As the superintendent of the Fort Sumter National Monument, Dodson recently helped seal a deal transferring its ownership from the U.S. Coast Guard to the National Park Service.

"Buyer beware," he joked as he ascended its stairs for the first time.

In 1986, the Park Service acquired much of the former Lifeguard Station, a century-old, 1.5-acre district next door to the lighthouse. It uses those old buildings for temporary housing, garages and offices, but park officials also have wanted to acquire the lighthouse to ensure its preservation.

Not only was Charleston Light built with one-of-a-kind features such as a triangular shape and a passenger elevator, its opening in 1962 also marked the end of an era.

"This is the last major lighthouse built by the U.S. government," Dodson said. "There's a real historical significance here. Maybe we can't see it today because it's so new. There are people on this island who remember it being built."

Chief Boatswain's Mate Andrew White, the Coast Guard's officer in charge of aides to navigation, met with Dodson and his staff to hand over the keys and the security code and to talk about access and maintenance. They also discussed scheduling a more formal ceremony to mark the transfer.

"You are relieving me of a big burden by taking over the lighthouse," White said, adding that his crew of 10 must monitor and maintain about 600 navigation aids between Savannah and Little River.

While the Coast Guard is giving up ownership, the Charleston Light, also known as Sullivan's Island Lighthouse, will remain lit for the foreseeable future.

"This is still a navigational aid. It's not here for show," White said. "As far as I know, it's going to be lit well past the time I'm here."

One of the biggest burdens of owning the lighthouse has been fielding requests from lighthouse buffs, federal officials and others longing for a peek inside, White said. That now will be the Park Service's problem, but the agency has no plans to open it publicly anytime soon.

"What's an acceptable way of letting people in?" Dodson asked. "We're going to have to figure that out as best we can."

While the elevator provides a smooth — if slow — 74-second ride up, visitors and maintenance crews must climb straight up a 25-foot metal ladder to reach the light and viewing platform.

"This is not a user-friendly lighthouse," Dodson said. "It's not going to be an open lighthouse like other historic lighthouses. That's a given."

The question of whether to open the lighthouse publicly once or twice a year might wait until the Park Service figures out what kind of maintenance it needs.

White said a Coast Guard study three years ago deemed it structurally sound. The lighthouse essentially is a lattice of steel covered by aluminum panels that appear to be in good shape, except for a little rust and a few spiderwebs on the ground floor. The biggest need might be a coat of paint inside and out.

"It needs a little bit of work, a little TLC and to try to make it pretty again," Dodson said.

White said another need is fixing one of the things that makes this lighthouse so special: its elevator. Unfortunately, it has a habit of rising all the way to the top level whenever it malfunctions, forcing a maintenance worker to climb 140 steps just to reset it.

"The biggest issue about this lighthouse is the elevator, and it has been for years," he said.

Lighthouse facts

When it opened in 1962, the Charleston Light was notable for several features:

-- A unique triangular shape with a point toward the ocean, a design meant to withstand winds of up to 125 mph.

-- A first-of-its-kind (for lighthouses) functioning electronic elevator with a 1,000-pound capacity.

-- A red color that was so unpopular that public outcry forced a change to its current black-top, white-base paint scheme.

-- A distinct light signature: A 0.2-second flash, a 4.8-second eclipse, another 0.2-second flash and a 24.8-second eclipse.

-- A light that was the second brightest in the Western hemisphere, surpassed only by the light in Rouen, France. (The light's brightness bothered island residents so much, its original 28-million candle-power light — which could be seen more than 70 miles out to sea — was replaced. The current 1.5-million candle-power light can be seen about 26 miles out to sea on clear nights).

Charleston Light timeline

1895: A U.S. Life-Saving Station and a Coast Guard Boat House are established on Sullivan's Island.

1938: The Coast Guard adds a four-bay garage for power boats and a 45-foot-tall signal tower.

1960: Decades of beach erosion on Morris Island leaves its lighthouse stranded in the sea, making its continued operation and maintenance more difficult. The federal government decides to build a new one, and the Coast Guard chooses a site on Sullivan's Island because of its presence there.

1962: The Charleston Light, also known as the Sullivan's Island Lighthouse, is lit on June 15. It would prove to be the last major lighthouse built by the federal government. The Morris Island Lighthouse goes dark.

1972: By this year, the Coast Guard realized the new light was much brighter than necessary and reduced its candle power by almost 95 percent. Metal panels are installed on the rear to minimize light directed inland.

1975: The Coast Guard automates the light and no longer has an employee living there.

1986: Congress passes a law authorizing the National Park Service to buy land in Charleston next to Dockside Condominiums for a tour boat facility. The law also includes a land swap in which the Coast Guard gets the Park Service's old tour boat site near Broad Street, while the Park Service receives most of the Coast Guard's lifesaving station property — except for the lighthouse.

1989: The lighthouse, designed to bend up to 4.3 inches in strong winds, is damaged by Hurricane Hugo but eventually is repaired.

2008: While still lit by the Coast Guard, the lighthouse is transferred to the National Park Service, which plans to study its condition and ideas for providing limited public access.