LIGHTHOUSE ISLAND -- Charleston County's two lesser- known lighthouses have stood on this fragile island for more than 150 years, prominent landmarks in the vast expanse off McClellanville known as Muddy Bay.

The view from the top of the taller tower -- barrier islands, marsh and ocean as far as the eye can see -- is said to be incomparable. It inspired the mural inside the T.W. Graham & Co. Seafood Restaurant.

But it's unclear when anyone will see it again.

These beacons haven't been lit for 60-plus years, and they now are owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the 66,000-acre Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.

The federal agency's priority is providing a habitat for threatened and endangered species, not preserving historic sites.

But the lighthouses do have allies, an informal network of volunteers interested in doing what they can to maintain them.

Contractor Tommy Graham is their leader, and he is planning a new round of repairs with more hope than he has had in a long time.

"There's no money. It's a wilderness area, and it's seven miles from shore," he said. "Other than that, everything's good."

The problems

Last winter was the last time Graham dared climb to the top of the 1857 lighthouse, a trip he made with structural engineer John Moore.

"He didn't like that at all, and I was very nervous," Graham said of their ascent. "The stairs are falling to pieces, and those near the top are faring the worst."

But the rusted cast iron stair treads aren't the most pressing problem.

Moore inspected where the lighthouse's glass and metal top, also known as its lantern, is tied to the brick tower, and he didn't like what he saw.

"A 110- to 120-mph wind will blow that thing off," Graham said of the lantern. "It wouldn't have done that 10 years ago, but it will now."

The shorter 1827 lighthouse seems stable and doesn't need any immediate repairs. Meanwhile, Cape Romain's shifting sands actually have increased the amount of land between the lighthouses and the beach.

Also, while the 1857 lighthouse tilts a few degrees to the west, its lean doesn't appear to be growing at an alarming rate.

The solutions

Moore has helped design a series of cross braces and nylon straps that will hold the lantern on at four points and connect to a cable that would pass through the hollow, cast iron column at the center of the light and tie to the ground.

Graham said he has consulted with experts at the Clemson Restoration Institute, which is conserving the Confederate Hunley submarine, and learned that the cast iron treads cannot be stabilized and would need to be replaced.

Graham said he hates the thought of removing historic fabric from the lighthouse, but he feels the treads could be sold individually to help finance the repairs. Also, their fiberglass replacements could be inscribed with names of donors.

Graham said the work on the lantern is most pressing, largely because it might not survive the next hurricane. The stairs would need to be replaced from the top down to ensure they wouldn't fall on workers if they failed catastrophically.

Several dozen volunteers pulled off the most recent repairs here two decades ago, when former U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings managed to get a $50,000 grant. Graham oversaw the effort to replace the window sashes and the glass panes in the lanterns.

Not a dime has been spent on it since then, but Graham hopes that soon will change.

The real challenge

If the lighthouse stood in the middle of McClellanville, its repair would be a much simpler thing.

But any workers and materials must be transported seven miles through a maze of creeks that link this island with the town.

Graham knows the federal government is broke and cannot be expected to provide much help, but he credits the refuge's new manager, Sarah Dawsey, for providing crucial support for his efforts.

Dawsey, manager of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, remembers climbing the towers as a teenager.

She first visited them while volunteering to monitor sea turtle nests.

"It's just an amazing view, just spectacular," Dawsey said. "I hope one day I can see it again. I feel very strongly it needs to be preserved."

Dawsey said her agency doesn't have money for the lighthouses, "but we're fortunate to have Tommy, who has taken a great interest in these lighthouses and has taken the lead in the charge to restore them."

Hauling scaffolding to the island would be cost prohibitive, but Graham has consulted with Moore, architect Glenn Keyes and contractor Moby Marks to imagine another way.

Graham said he hopes to build a series of four, 4-foot-wide platforms on beams cantilevered out from each of the lighthouse's upper four windows.

Each platform would support a 32-foot extension ladder angled up to the next platform. The first platform would be about 30 feet off the ground, so any visitors to the island couldn't reach it.

Graham still needs the Fish and Wildlife Service to approve the plan, but he figures it could cost as little as $10,000 to provide the necessary access to make repairs.

"For a long time, I thought that this would be a colossally expensive venture all the way through," he said. "I'm more optimistic about the future of them now than I've been for 20-plus years."

He hopes to start work early in the year and finish before hurricane season.

"I'll bet I've put in more volunteer time for the federal government than most people. I'm happy to do it," he said. "I want to get these things off dead center and be able to take my grandchildren all the way to the top."

 

1792: Jonathan Lucas builds a sawmill on an island off McClellanville, but the wind-powered structure causes a problem as sailors begin mistaking it for the light that marks the entrance to Charleston Harbor.

1827: A 65-foot-tall tower is erected nearby. It cost $8,425, including a lighting system and keeper's dwelling.

1831: Congress appropriates $1,000 to remove Lucas' sawmill, which is no longer used but still causing confusion among mariners.

1852: Authorities agree that the existing lighthouse is too small to warn ships about the shoals off McClellanville.

1858: A new, octagonal lighthouse, 150 feet tall, is lit. It stands about 100 yards from the old one.

1862: The lens and lantern are destroyed.

1865: The lighthouse is relit.

1874: The lighthouse develops a lean that causes it to be more than 2 feet out of plumb, but its movement would later slow.

1931: The newer tower's light is replaced with a revolving lens and a 500-watt bulb powered by a newly constructed generator plant nearby.

1947: The tower is decommissioned by the Coast Guard after lighted buoys are placed offshore. The lighthouses are now part of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.

1989: Both towers survive Hurricane Hugo's winds and storm surge.

1997: Contractor Tommy Graham and dozens of volunteers finish a five-year-long project to repaint the larger lighthouse and replace its missing window sashes, door frames and glass panes on the lantern. Their decades-long absence damaged the cast iron stairs inside.

2011: A structural report by engineer John Moore of 4SE finds the lantern's ties to the tower failing and its stair treads highly compromised. Graham begins planning a new round of repairs.