As I pointed my car in the direction of Lighthouse Inlet Beach, I realized I may have underestimated just how many people would sojourn to the far end of Folly to witness history as the Morris Island Lighthouse shone again for the first time in 50 years.
By some small miracle, I managed to find a parking spot in the grass next to an old Ford Ranger, and I fell in line with the throngs of people filing down East Ashley Avenue. As I walked, the methodical thwap-thwap-thwap of my flip-flops was like a metronome, measuring out my steps as I made my way toward a very special celebration indeed — the 140th anniversary of the first lighting of the iconic Morris Island Lighthouse.
The event, organized by the grassroots nonprofit Save the Light, would be capped off by the Lighthouse being re-illuminated for the first time since being decommissioned back in 1962. To make as much possible, SCE&G engineers wired the historic structure using 12-volt batteries, 10 LED lights, and a solar panel. At 7:30pm sharp, they would bring the 140-year-old beauty back to life with the touch of a cell phone button.
So onward I pressed.
At the entrance to the half mile stretch before hitting the beach, volunteers from Save the Light greeted every passing face with a smile and a question: “Would you like a piece of cake?” You can’t have a birthday celebration without cake, after all, and this one was beautiful — decorated with the likeness of the lighthouse, lined by swaths of sweet frosting.
As I closed in on Lighthouse Inlet Beach, I picked up the pace to keep the bugs at bay. Beneath my feet, graffiti hearts in neon colors created a makeshift path that eventually ended in a narrow, sandy ascent. Approaching the crest of the hill, the Morris Island Lighthouse came into view in her full glory.
I made it. I weaved my way in between camera crews, longtime locals, and tourists alike as I scanned the beach for a perfect spot to plunk down in the cool sand.
Beach music poured out of big speakers while we waited for the festivities to begin. Mothers stood at the edge of the surf as their children, tan-toed from a sunny summer, darted in and out of the waves. Just off the coast of the beach, boaters idled in anticipation.
It was one of those perfect days, you know?
The ceremony soon got underway with remarks from members of Save the Light, including Al Hitchcock. I was genuinely impressed (and grateful) upon learning that these modern day light keepers, so to speak, had already raised and devoted around $6 million for the preservation of this maritime treasure.
It was also heartwarming to hear the story of a couple who had gotten married in the lighthouse in 1986 and made the trip from their current home in Wilmington to be at the lighting ceremony. It really underscored just how meaningful the Morris Island Lighthouse is to so many people.
After the opening remarks, a lovely couple by the name of Betty and John O’Brien presented Save the Light with the largest single family donation in the organization’s history — a check for $250,000. The donation was poignantly made in memory of their granddaughter, Ashley Monique Campbell.
The large crowd now gathered on the beach had fallen silent during the moving dedication. When Save the Light announced the time had come for the lighthouse to shine once more, we all shuffled to our feet in excited anticipation.
3…2…1… a soft yellow glow filled the lighthouse’s lower windows, followed by a bright white beam circling atop. It’s hard to describe the charge in the air during that moment. Looking around at face after face peering out into the sea, you couldn’t help but think of the countless sailors throughout history who did the same as the lighthouse guided them safely to shore.
It was a simple moment but an impactful one, and I’m grateful I was one of the many nameless faces in the crowd who witnessed it that night.
Writer’s note: A huge thank you to local photographer Trey Hopkins, who generously agreed to let us borrow his stunning capture of the Morris Island Lighthouse that night. It far exceeds anything I snapped on my cell phone and truly captures the essence of the moment. Bonus? You can purchase the print at Looking 4 Local Gifts & More right here in Charleston at the Citadel Mall, or you can get yours via Trey’s online Zenfolio.