When it was first illuminated in 1962, the Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse could damage the retina.
The last mainland lighthouse built in the U.S. boasted one of the most powerful beacons ever, shining with the equivalent of 28 million candelas. That’s a lot of base units of luminous intensity.
Some complained. It seems the rotating light was just too dazzling. Technicians had to don asbestos welding suits before ascending the tower. You definitely didn't want to look into the light.
So the technicians in their asbestos suits reduced its power to a mere 1.2 million candelas, which could be seen 26 nautical miles from shore. Far enough, surely.
Then, 56 years after its construction, in early November, the Charleston Light as it is sometimes called went dark.
Pretty soon word got to the people in charge at the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. National Park Service that something was wrong.
Indeed, the powerful beacon and the system installed to ensure its illumination had seized up and quit. But repairing it is somewhat akin to repairing an old telephone switchboard, or a carousel, or a mechanical pocket watch, or the giant presses at a newspaper. It requires expertise that’s increasingly uncommon, hard to find and expensive.
So the Coast Guard, which maintains the lighthouse beacon, took one look at the old system and decided it was too cumbersome and complicated. Better to replace the whole thing with something modern, said Lt. James Zorn, the local Coast Guard public affairs officer.
“Finding the parts to repair it was a challenge,” Zorn said. “It’s like fixing an accordion.”
So assessments were made and orders placed.
“We’re hoping to get the equipment within a month,” he said. “It will be a completely different system, the same or better capability as the existing one. And much smaller.”
The large old system will need to be removed, and that could present a logistical challenge. After all, it sits 162.5 feet up.
Good thing there’s an elevator in the building — likely the only lighthouse in the U.S. with an elevator. And air conditioning. And the tower is ... triangular. Its odd shape and aluminum siding enables the structure to withstand winds up to 125 miles per hour. Designer Jack Graham clearly was obsessed with functionality and comfort.
The Charleston Light replaced the Morris Island Lighthouse which, built in 1876, became a victim of erosion severe enough to cause the authorities to douse its flame — and thus its functionality — in the 1950s. It became merely monumental and an object of conservation efforts in the years since. Mariners quickly learned to look right instead of left for the glow that would help them find the mouth of Charleston Harbor.
In 2008, the Coast Guard bequeathed the lighthouse property to the National Park Service, though the good men and women in white and red continue to service the light itself.
The good men and women in the brown uniforms, instead, now have the more daunting task of preserving the whole set of structures, including the nearby Boathouse and Life Saving Station — of asserting their historic value and satisfying the curiosity of visitors.
Today, the Charleston Light is a bit of a relic. Seafarers don’t really rely on it anymore; they’re too busy looking at their GPS-enabled electronic charts or handing over the helm of their commercial transport vessels to local harbor pilots who know the watery terrain like the back of their hands.
“It will be great to see it working again,” said Dawn Davis, public affairs officer for Fort Sumter National Monument. “We get lots of inquiries.”
It might take another month or so, Zorn said.