Digest>Archives> Mar/Apr 2012

Cape Romain Lighthouses Added to Doomsday List

By Timothy Harrison


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The remains of the 1827 Cape Romain Lighthouse ...
Photo by: Richard Clayton

Lighthouse Digest has added South Carolina’s two Cape Romain Lighthouses to its Doomsday List of Endangered American Lighthouses.

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The 1857 tower as it appeared after the ...
Photo by: Christopher Cox

The first tower, built in 1827, although still standing, lost its lantern room many years ago and although somewhat structurally sound, is in poor shape. In fact, it looks more like a large smoke stack from an old abandoned factory. The second Cape Romain Lighthouse tower, built in 1857, which has been abandoned since 1947 when it was replaced by lighted buoys, is now in imminent danger of losing its lantern room, and its stairway is no longer safe.

Both towers are located on Lighthouse Island, which is about seven miles off the coast of McClellanville and approximately forty miles north of Charleston, South Carolina. Although the lighthouses are on the National Register of Historic Places, they are part of the 66,000 acre Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, and are under the management of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which, obviously, does not have either a mandate or the funds to restore historic structures.

But the U. S. Fish and Wildlife officials have supported, as they can, an ally of volunteers under the leadership of Tommy Graham, a local contractor who has been trying to save the lighthouses for close to 25 years. Graham, who has restored old buildings, says it is vital to save historic structures and the history associated with them so that future generations can better understand who we are as a nation and a people.

In 1997, thanks in part to a $50,000 grant, Graham and his team of volunteers completed a long project that repainted the 1857 tower, replaced missing window sashes, door frames, and glass panes on the lantern, However, without ongoing maintenance the tower continued to deteriorate.

In a 2011 structural report by engineer John Moore, it was reported that the lantern room is no longer securely attached to the tower and the stairway is falling to pieces, although the stairs near the top of the tower are in worse condition than the lower stairs. The biggest fear and most pressing concern is that a strong wind storm or hurricane could easily blow the lantern room off the tower, which would probably make any future restoration cost-prohibitive.

Graham estimates that it would cost more than $100,000 to restore the tower; however what they need immediately is $10,000 in donations to keep the lantern room from being lost. Hauling scaffolding to the island would be prohibitive. The trip to the lighthouse is through a maze of marsh and sea grass and then wading through water after disembarking from a boat and then traversing the often overgrown trail to the lighthouse.

However, Graham and his team of consultants have come with a plan to save the lantern room by building a series of four 4-foot wide platforms on beams cantilevered out from the lighthouse windows. Each platform could then support a 32-foot extension ladder angled up to the next platform and to the top of the lighthouse at the lantern room where the work to secure it to the tower could then be done. The plan still needs to be approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. However, Graham said he is extremely grateful for the support of Sarah Dawsey, manager of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, for working closely with him to help save the lighthouse. Graham says if the plan is approved, the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service could be credited with allowing volunteers to save the lighthouse for future generations without ever using any taxpayer money. However, in order for that to happen, donations still need to be raised and time is of the essence.

For additional photographs of the Cape Romain Lighthouses, refer to the August, 2002 and the December, 2004 editions of Lighthouse Digest.

This story appeared in the Mar/Apr 2012 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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