The Morris Island Lighthouse is one of Charleston’s best-loved landmarks. It is also one of the most photographed. The 161-foot-tall tower, named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, is distinguished for being the tallest of South Carolina's lighthouses. While it is not accessible by land nor open to the public, there are plenty of ways to view this iconic sentinel, which has withstood the many challenges of its storied past.
See the Morris Island Lighthouse
Construction and Catastrophe
A timeline gives a glimpse of how war, weather and other natural disasters defined the evolution of the lighthouse – the third to stand on Morris Island.
- 1767: A 42-foot-tall lighthouse is built on the island to guide ships nearing Charleston Harbor.
- 1838: The first lighthouse is replaced by a 102-foot tower with a revolving light.
- 1862: The lighthouse is destroyed during the Civil War to prevent Union troops from utilizing it.
- 1876: A new lighthouse is constructed and illuminated.
- 1885: A cyclone destroys structures on the island but the lighthouse stands.
- 1886: The Charleston earthquake cracks the tower and displaces the lens of the main light but is quickly repaired.
- 1938: Though erected 1200 feet onshore, the now-automated Morris Island Lighthouse looms from the lip of the shoreline thanks to gradual erosion.
- 1962: The lighthouse is decommissioned and sold to a private citizen.
- 1989: Hurricane Hugo destroys all remaining structures around the lighthouse, but the tower withstands the storm.
- 1996: Save the Light, Inc., which began as a local grassroots movement, buys the lighthouse in hopes of saving it.
- 2000: The State of South Carolina assumes ownership and coordinates with Save the Light to protect and maintain the lighthouse.
Today, the Morris Island Lighthouse is surrounded by water. Efforts continue to protect this state treasure from its greatest threat to date: natural erosion that was exacerbated by forces of nature and jetties created in 1889 to safeguard Charleston Harbor and its shipping lanes. Though the consequences were unforeseen, the effects are still felt more than a century later.
The Morris Island Lighthouse still stands guard over Charleston Harbor, just off the shore of Folly Island. The best vantage point for shoreline viewing is from the beach at the northeasternmost point. You can reach it via the Lighthouse Inlet Heritage Preserve, which is open daily from sunrise to sunset. Take the East Ashley Street entrance. While there is limited parking at the end of the road, a lot of sightseers prefer getting there by biking along Folly Beach. There is a small admission fee that supports upkeep of the preserve.
Exploring Morris Island
The closest you can get to the lighthouse requires a trip to Morris Island. There are several tour services that will get you there safely and soundly. Charleston Outdoor Adventures is one such operation, shuttling visitors on a 6-mile cruise through the tidal creeks to the uninhabited barrier island where you can enjoy a few minutes of beachcombing and snag some impressive pics. Take a guided tour of Morris Island with Adventure Island Tours, hunt for island fossils or enjoy a Lowcountry boil picnic with Tideline Tours, or make a day of it by booking a private excursion with Atlantic Breeze Fishing and Sailing Charters. Of course, paddlers or boaters often make the trip in their own vessels, but only do so if you are experienced as currents and tides can be tricky. And if you are tempted to wade or swim to the island, think again. It is much further and more dangerous than it looks. Also keep in mind that the Department of Natural Resources does not allow overnight camping on Morris Island, so leave the sleeping bags and tents behind.