Tommy Graham and the Preservation of the Cape Romain Lighthouses
South Carolina’s coast has been home to a vibrant maritime culture for centuries. However, the same bountiful waters were also the scene of disaster and ruin. European sailors actively sought to chart the shifting sandbars and shoals. These hazards destroyed countless vessels unlucky enough to run aground, especially in a storm. The ships owners appealed to the Federal government soon after its formation, and the construction of navigational aids became a priority.
Foremost was the feat of building towering lighthouses, and South Carolina’s coast was no exception. The first Cape Romain Light was constructed in 1827, followed thirty-years later by the second light bearing the same name. The “new” light was activated on January 1st, 1858. Both brick structures still occupy the same island, merely hundreds of feet apart. The lighthouse
compound also contains the remains of the lightkeeper’s houses and outbuildings. Lighthouse Island is also somewhat of an anomaly along the Carolina coast; the beach is expanding into the ocean. Buried beneath the sandy surface are untouched archaeological resources, offering a tantalizing connection to the past.
Throughout the 20th-century, “kedge” anchors have been recovered from the shallow waters bordering Lighthouse Island. These anchors were used to winch ships away from obstructions and avoid catastrophic damage. In Cape Romain’s case, these vessels came too close to the shoals. Sailors would have to quickly row out in a small boat with the anchor, and drop it. Back on deck, the crew would strenuously turn a wooden capstan, pulling the ship towards the anchor (and safety). “There’s about forty-eight anchors that have been recovered,” Tommy Graham told me. “We know that many of these anchors were from ships that were eventually lost.” This was a sobering reminder of how dangerous seafaring is. He continued, “I used to take the boat out there to the island… there was a piece of an old wooden ship hull that had washed up. It’s long rotted away now. Even today, pieces of anthracite coal wash up on the beach. They’re from a barge that sank 100-years-ago near the shoals.”
Thomas “Tommy” Graham is a lifelong resident of McClellanville, S.C. The old village is within rowboat distance of the lights, just across the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. This area has a vast expanse of marsh and small islands, offering an unadulterated experience of South Carolina’s coastal habitats. The barrier islands, like Lighthouse Island, shield the sensitive area from the brute force of the Atlantic. U.S. Fish & Wildlife manages the area with the exception of the lighthouse compound. This is due to the previous activity there, its land carved by human hands. Through an agreement, Tommy maintains the old lights and works with Coastal Expeditions to give tours on a limited basis. Originally conducted semi-annually, the demand was so great that the public now visits the Cape Romain lighthouses four-times each year. Each trip is consistently sold out.
Despite the wreckage that has floated ashore, the lights saved many more ships of impending destruction. They also welcomed seafarers, from the world over, as they neared the Port of Charleston. Prior to the completed Intracoastal Waterway, even coastal ships had to make the dangerous journey offshore. After World War II however, advances in radio communication and inland navigation made many lighthouses obsolete. In 1947, The Cape Romain Light was decommissioned. It remained an important tactical landmark for years after; military pilots used the lighthouses as a turning point while on exercise. They became curiosities, especially for locals who loved to explore the expanse of wilderness.
For a young Tommy Graham, these fascinating structures held a special place. They came to embody his home, and the maritime culture of the Carolina coast. He spearheaded a grassroots effort that has gained regional and national attention. Like most local campaigns, his also had humble beginnings.
In the late-1980’s, Tommy took the forty-five-minute trip to Charleston for a doctor’s appointment. In the waiting room, he found himself thumbing through stacks of magazines, until one article caught his eye… This article detailed the U.S. Lighthouse Society, and the strides they made in preserving New England lighthouses. It was there, reading that magazine in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, that a spark was ignited. Tommy looked out across his own backyard and found inspiration. Under his leadership, the Cape Romain lighthouses retain their historic character. Their paint schemes; iron oxide red for the older light, and a “classic” black-and-white scheme for the newer, taller iteration, were meticulously repainted. Suspended high in the beachfront breeze, they worked tirelessly to match historic photos and descriptions. Besides painting, continuous maintenance includes clearing the thick underbrush and maintaining pathways through the compound. Even the wooden stairway and platform to reach the 1857 light was built by himself, and a few select volunteers. As a testament to his construction abilities, the platform survived Hurricane Hugo the following year in 1989. Cape Romain and McClellanville received a direct hit from the powerful Category 4 storm. Despite the devastation ashore, the resilient brick structures held fast. Following the cleanup, the 1857 watch room deck had new handrails installed in the following decade.
The engineering and industrial aspect of the lights is what continues to captivate Graham and other like-minded people. Tommy is a wealth of knowledge in this regard as well. His presentation, which briefed us before the trip to Lighthouse Island, provided a brief history and technical overview.
Upon the first Cape Romain construction date in 1827, the U.S. was still using an antiquated lamp style that had limited visibility. Called “parabolic reflectors,” these lenses were designed by Winslow Lewis, a former sea captain turned inventor. Cape Romain’s older light had eleven wicks with this design burning whale oil. The squatty brick structure features no watch room and a timber staircase and frame. The low focal plane and Lewis-built lenses were a dangerous combination. Ships were out of range until they were almost aground, providing little warning. The structure also resembled a wind-driven grist mill that once stood on adjacent Mill Island. This added to the confusion among unfamiliar sailors and demanded a technological change. Unfortunately for the Lighthouse Establishment, change was slow to come under Stephen Pleasonton’s oversight. Pleasonton, a bureaucrat, was appointed to the Treasury Department position shortly after the War of 1812. Lewis and Pleasonton also had dubious partnership which stressed cost savings over navigational security.
A French invention, the Fresnel Lense, was eventually adopted and installed in the taller 1857 light. The Lighthouse Establishment’s 1852 successor, the U.S. Lighthouse Board, embraced the invention despite Pleasonton’s misgivings. The new Cape Romain light gave the advanced first-order lense a commanding height (“order” referring to brightness). Inside, the heavy rotating base of the lantern is supported by a fluted, cast iron column. Ball bearings facilitated the rotation. Open-tread iron stairs spiral to the masonry watch room and iron lantern above. A product of its time, the masonry watch rooms of the antebellum period would give way to riveted sheet iron assemblies post-1870. Tommy’s explanation provided a lot of clarity for me, “After 1870, you start to see a lot more cast iron being utilized. Windows and door surrounds for example… The design of U.S. lighthouses became more-and-more standardized.”
The prominent 1857 lantern has 16 facets split between the long iron muntins. While the lense it once housed came from Paris, much of the structure’s material sources remain a mystery. There has been some talk that Philadelphian brickyards and foundries supplied much of it, though nothing has been confirmed with documentation. Even with the adoption of electric bulbs, the lense remained intact until the early-1960’s. Vandals seeking out the brass frame broke apart the crystalline glass in a desperate attempt to scavenge the metal. Appalled by the act, Tommy has worked to conserve what pieces he can find buried in the sand.
The newer light has posed the greatest preservation challenges. Amazingly, the immense structure was built on a timber mat with nearly fifty wooden piles. Over the years, the structure has begun to tilt to the southwest, if only several degrees. The stately iron stairs have also corroded leading to “rust jacking,” a phenomenon where the expansive forces of iron oxide crack the surrounding masonry. Still, Tommy has a plan. “I got the help of a structural engineer, John Moore of 4SE [Structural Engineering]. He designed these wooden treads, and I’m building them,” he explained to our tour group. We peered upwards into the darkness. What seemed like a daunting task of building new stairs was being methodically performed, tread by tread. For Tommy, it’s a labor of love. Apparently, his enthusiasm for preservation is infectious. Several sets of ladders needed to climb the exterior of the lighthouse were donated by Division Five, a local steel fabricator. They will be installed in the Fall of 2018. Besides engineers, Graham has also sought the expertise of architect Glenn Keyes. His firm has a proven record with preservation projects and were eager to lend their experience.
Recently, a major effort was completed to stabilize the lantern of the 1857 light. His old friend, John Moore, designed a system to brace it. Hillary King, an architectural conservator with 4SE, also provided technical insight. As Tommy flipped through sheets of as-built drawings, he cheerfully pointed out a drone image of the completed work. The bracing blends beautifully into the existing structure and provides increased stability for the lantern support walls. Atop the lantern, a vent remains that allowed hazardous gases and fumes to escape; byproducts of the whale oil and kerosene eras. “It uses a venturi, like a carburetor!” Tommy smiled at his analogy and continued, “The breeze pulls the fumes right out.” Before us was a detailed mechanical drawing from a lighthouse catalog, “These lamps were truly complex marvels.”
The technical challenges thus far have been expertly tackled by Graham and his network. Fundraising, however, remains a chronic challenge. This is not a unique burden for preservationists. In the case of the Cape Romain Lighthouses, at least one local preservation group approached Tommy offering money, but never followed through. In an effort, to foster public engagement, an exhibit is planned for the Sewee Visitor & Environmental Education Center in nearby Awendaw. Artifacts would include the ship’s wheel of the USCGC Mangrove, a lighthouse tender of Spanish-American War fame, and a mooring buoy from Cape Romain. “I think it’s something; to think that the Mangrove may have been tied to that same buoy when she worked the 6th Lighthouse District,” Tommy reflected, showing me the noble wheel crafted from tropical hardwoods. By pure happenstance, he saved it from the scrap heap when he realized where it came from. This exhibit is still in the planning stages as pieces are collected and conserved.
The Cape Romain Lighthouses and their artifacts remain integral to South Carolina’s maritime landscape, and a nation that relies on waterborne commerce. At one time, they warned sailors of deadly shoals. Today, they welcome visitors to Cape Romain’s vast natural landscape, and serve as monuments to generations of seafarers. “It’s incredibly rare, it seems to me at least, to have the original and successor [lighthouses] right there on the same site,” Tommy stated. I believe he is correct. Faced with the awing task of preserving the lighthouse compound, he enlisted the help of friends and locals. As Graham’s cause gains momentum, so do the number and location of its advocates. Those who have visited the island can tell you personally; The Cape Romain Lights offer a captivating view into our oceangoing past.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Zach Liollio was born in Charleston, S.C. in 1993, and grew up across the river in West Ashley. After graduating from The College of Charleston in 2016, he started on a Master’s of Science in Technical Project Management degree at The Citadel. He now works for the S.C. Dept. of Transportation and runs a preservation consulting side-business, Z.P. Liollio & Co. As time permits he enjoys shaping steel as well as academic writing. Zach is a member of the Philip Simmons Guild, S.C.’s guild of artist blacksmiths, and volunteers at the Lexington County Museum where he demonstrated blacksmithing.