Lighthouse trips

What: Coastal Expeditions, which has the contract to run ferry service in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, makes four trips a year from McClellanville to Lighthouse Island.

When: This year's dates are March 16, July 6, Sept. 14 and Nov. 16.

Cost: $45

More info: www.coastalexpeditions.com, call 884-7684 or email info@coastalexpeditions.com

MCCLELLANVILLE - Contractor Tommy Graham climbed to the top of the Cape Romain Lighthouse last summer and recalls how its rusted cast-iron stair treads made the trip far more dramatic than it once was.

"I had a three-quarter-inch Manila line tied off at the top," he says, "and I literally pulled myself up and let myself down and used the little corbels, where the steps rest on the central column, to support my weight.

"I don't recommend it to the casual lighthouse observer."

This spring, Graham hopes to return to the top of the 1857 landmark so he and others can make long-overdue repairs.

But first, he would like to raise about $300,000.

The rusting stairs inside the lighthouse are the most immediate issue, if only because their failed condition makes it hard to reach and fix other problem spots.

Two years ago, Graham made a temporary repair to secure its lantern - the top structure of glass and metal - to the lower brick tower.

Once the stairs are fixed, masons and other workers can patch the cracks and make more permanent repairs to ensure it survives the next hurricane.

Graham plans to replace 180 rusting cast-iron treads, which weigh about 110 pounds apiece, with treated wooden ones. Such a change in material is not a perfect preservation approach, but it solves several problems, such as reducing the threat of rust and making future fixes far easier.

The State Historic Preservation Office and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which owns the building, have been largely on the same page so far, Graham says. His work also has been helped by structural engineers John Moore and Hillary King, architect Glenn Keyes, and several volunteers in town.

Moore, who also made a perilous trip to the top three years ago, says one of the lighthouse's other great challenges isn't the structure itself but the logistical headache it poses.

All workers and materials must make a seven-mile boat trip from this town's landing to Lighthouse Island, where this lighthouse stands.

That makes a full set of scaffolding cost-prohibitive - and scaffolding also would present a major security concern on this remote barrier island - but Graham and Moore have come up with an access plan involving a series of metal ladders.

They have received four custom metal ladders from Division Five Inc., a fabrication company in Hollywood. This spring, those will be secured on new platforms cantilevered out the windows. Workers then can reach the top and start replacing treads from the top down, a step necessary to avoid injury by falling treads above.

Once they're in, work can begin to stabilize the lantern and watch room. Graham says he also eventually hopes to give it a paint job and place a low-profile metal cap on the shorter, 1827 lighthouse, whose top is exposed to the elements but still remains in relatively good shape.

Both were built to warn 19th-century mariners away from Cape Romain's shoals, not to guide them into port.

In fact, the lighthouses' remote location also poses a challenge in raising awareness about them, says Chris Crolley with Coastal Expeditions, a business that has run regular trips to Lighthouse Island for about 20 years.

"It's not as in your face as Morris Island," he says. "Nobody thinks about it, but that doesn't make it any less a valid part of our cultural heritage."

The lighthouses can be seen as a symbol of their owner's fiscal plight. Their last major repair was funded by a $50,000 federal grant secured by former Sen. Fritz Hollings, but while Graham hopes to interest Sens. Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham in the lighthouse, it seems doubtful they'll be able to do much in this anti-earmark era of ever-rising debt.

So that leaves the lighthouses' fate to Graham, the town and others like Crolley who feel a special affinity for the place.

"It's been hard to watch it fall apart and receive very little community support," Crolley says. "If we don't take some active steps soon, it's going to be a lost cause."

But Graham has a renewed sense of optimism, buoyed by a large, anonymous donation as well as by Division Five's ladders.

He plans to launch a more ambitious fundraising effort soon, one that he hopes won't step on the toes of Save the Light, the Lowcountry nonprofit raising money for the Morris Island Lighthouse, but that will help ensure all the historic maritime beacons along South Carolina's coast have a bright future.

"I'm beginning to think we're going to get this thing fixed," Graham says.

"The goal is to let people go up to the top," Moore adds. "It is quite a view. In fact, I don't know if you could beat it."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.