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 Cockspur Island, GA    
Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.Lighthouse open for climbing.
Description: The first Tybee Island Lighthouse was built in 1736 to mark the entrance to the Savannah River, but mariners still had to travel seventeen miles upstream to reach the port of Savannah. Several islands, including Cockspur, Long, and Elba, lie between the river's mouth and the port, bisecting the river into two main channels: the north channel, and the south channel.

Congress appropriated $3,000 on March 3, 1832 for an unlit beacon on the "White Oyster Beds" near the mouth of the Savannah River, and then sixteen years later, provided another $2,000 for "placing a lantern, lamps, and reflectors upon the beacon already erected" and for a small house for the keeper. Noted New York architect John Norris, who designed the U.S. Customs House and Hugh-Mercer house in Savannah, was hired to "repair, alter, and put lanterns and lights on Cockspur Island...and to erect a suitable keeper's house." As a result of this work, two lights, known as Oyster Beds Beacon and Cockspur Island Beacon, were established off Cockspur Island in 1849 to mark the entrance to the south channel of the Savannah River. Each of these beacons displayed a light at a focal plane of twenty-five feet using three lamps and fourteen-inch reflectors. Cockspur Island Lighthouse displayed a fixed white light, and Oyster Beds Lighthouse a fixed red light.

Dwelling atop Fort Pulaksi
Photograph courtesy National Park Service
The first keeper of these two lights was the appropriately named John Lightburn, who resided on Cockspur Island, near Fort Pulaski, and would make daily trips to the towers to service the lights. James Callan was serving as keeper in 1850, when an inspector noted that the lamps often burned longer than was necessary since it was dangerous to access the towers at high tide. After an 1854 hurricane destroyed the keeper's dwelling and Cockspur Island Lighthouse, the tower was rebuilt in 1856 and outfitted with a fifth-order Fresnel lens. This brick tower, which remains standing today, has a unique feature - its eastern side is shaped like the prow of a ship to better withstand the force of high seas.

Cornelius Maher, the third keeper of the lights, drowned in 1853 when his boat capsized in the river. Maher's wife, Mary, replaced her husband as keeper and remained at the lights for three more years.

When Union forces entered the area in 1861, they took control of Tybee Island and constructed batteries on the island's western shore. The confederates had retreated to Fort Pulaski, thinking that they would be safe within the fort's seven-foot-thick walls that were constructed using twenty-five million bricks. On April 11, 1862, Union soldiers opened fire on the fort using a new weapon, rifled Parrot guns. These powerful guns were reportedly able to drive their thirty-six-pound shot roughly a mile to the fort and then nearly two feet into the fort's walls. After more than 5,000 such shots had been fired, the fort was severely damaged, and the occupants decided it was wise to surrender before a shot penetrated their powder magazine. The battle lasted just thirty hours, and amazingly, Cockspur Island Lighthouse, which stood in the direct line of fire between Tybee Island and the fort, suffered no damage.

The lights at Oyster Bed and Cockspur Island resumed operation in 1866, after some "considerable rebuilding" was performed to re-establish lights that had been "destroyed by the rebels" during the Civil War. In 1876, the Lighthouse Board noted the following regarding the residence on Cockspur Island for the keepers of Oyster Beds and Cockspur Beacons: "The keeper's dwelling, a small one-story frame building, built on a wooden foundation, is more than twenty years old, and so decayed that further repairs are unadvisable. It is also so near the ground that during severe gales the water rises above the floor." The dilapidated dwelling was struck by lightning in April 1880, and then destroyed the following year by a hurricane that temporarily raised the water level twenty-three feet above normal.

Temporary accommodations were arranged for the keepers of the two lights at Fort Pulaski, and then in 1893, six casemates at the fort were fitted up with doors, partitions, windows, and closets to accommodate the head keeper and assistant. In 1902, Congress was petitioned for $4,000 for a keeper's dwelling to be erected atop the parapet at Fort Pulaski to replace the casemate accommodations which were "damp, unsanitary, and unsuited to residential purposes." In 1906, the War Department finally granted the keepers permission to occupy the former Ordnance Sergeant's residence, and in 1907, this dwelling atop the fort was enlarged to better accommodate the two keepers.

Cockspur Island Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
In August 1871, Keeper Patrick Egan set out to service Cockspur Lighthouse during a heavy storm with two of his sons, Michael and Thomas. En route to the lighthouse, the trio's boat capsized. Patrick and Michael managed to cling to the overturned boat, but Thomas drowned and his body was never recovered.

George Washington Martus was one of the keepers who served during the postbellum period, accepting an assignment to the station in 1881 at the age of eighteen. Martus served until 1884, when he transferred upstream to Elba Island Lighthouse. Martus' sister Florence lived with him on Elba Island, and for over forty-years, she greeted all the vessels entering and leaving the port of Savannah with the wave of a handkerchief by day or a lantern by night. She became somewhat of a legend and was known as the "Waving Girl."

It is not really known what started her tradition of waving at the passing ships, though several legends suggest a reason. The most popular story is that her sweetheart left on a ship from Savannah and promised to come back for her one day. She vowed to wave at every ship until his return - but he never came back. Her friendliness is memorialized by a statue located near the waterfront in Savannah. The statue was sculpted by Felix de Weldon, creator of "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima," and shows Florence waving a handkerchief with a lantern and her pet collie by her feet. A celebration was held at Fort Pulaski in 1938 to honor Florence on her seventieth birthday, and a historical sign telling her story has since been placed at Fort Pulaski near the visitors center. Florence passed away in 1943, and a Liberty ship, completed in Savannah that year, was christened with her name.

Carrying on Florence's tradition at Elba Island was not an easy assignment. Billie Burn's husband Lance was assigned relief duty on Elba Island for one month in 1939. Billie would wave a white towel by day, and a lantern by night, but after a few nights of getting up to greet each ship, she grew tired and just left the lantern in the window. To acknowledge the lantern's greeting, the ships would sound three blasts of their horns, which Billie says about blew them out of bed. After thirty miserable days, Billie was eager to wave goodbye to Elba Island.

In 1909, the deep draft ships calling at Savannah started to use the north channel, and Cockspur Lighthouse was deactivated. The Coast Guard abandoned the lighthouse as a daymark in 1949, but fortunately the Park Service assumed control of the light in 1958 by presidential proclamation. The tower was repaired in a two-stage restoration effort that lasted from 1995 to 2000. A new lantern room was put in place atop the tower, brickwork was repaired and repointed, and the lighthouse received two coats of whitewash during the project. Cockspur Island Lighthouse, which was relit on March 18, 2007 using a solar-powered beacon, is now part of Fort Pulaski National Monument.

In 2007, it was discovered that shipworms had bored into the lighthouse's wooden support timbers exposed due to erosion. Now, shipworms, wave action, and tidal erosion combine to threaten the tower's stability. Recognizing the tenuous state of the tower, the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation put Cockspur Lighthouse on its 2008 list of ten 'Places in Peril.' The Park Service has requested $1.4 million for a thorough restoration, but the money will not likely be provided for several years.

Head Keepers: John H. Lightburn (1849), James Callan (1850), Cornelius Maher (1851 1853), Mary Maher (1853 1856), Thomas Quinliven (1856), Patrick Egan (1856 1867), Thomas F. Floyd (1867 1869), Patrick Egan (1869 1877), Charles W. Poland (1877 1881), George W. Martus (1881 1884), Jeremiah Keane (1884 1898), Edward L. Floyd (1898 1901), Gustaf Ohman (1901 at least 1912).

Photo Gallery: 1

References

  1. "Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. "The Lighthouses of Georgia," Buddy Sullivan, The Keeper's Log, Spring 1988.
  3. Georgia's Lighthouses and Historic Coastal Sites, Kevin McCarthy, 1998.

Location: Located off the eastern end of Cockspur Island marking the southern channel of the Savannah River.
Latitude: 32.0227
Longitude: -80.88007

For a larger map of Cockspur Island Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: From Interstate 516 in Savannah, take Highway 80 East for about 15.5 miles to Fort Pulaski National Monument. You can proceed over the bridge to the fort on Cockspur Island from where you can see the Cockspur Lighthouse, or you can continue east on Highway 80 just pass Lazaretto Creek. A 0.65-mile-long Lighthouse Overlook Trail begins just north of the fort and leads to the shore near the lighthouse where good views of the tower are possible.

To get really close to the lighthouse a wade through marshes or a trip in a boat or kayak is required. I took a trip with Captain Mike's Dolphin Tours, which departs from Lazaretto Creek Marina, and they obligingly made sure I got some good shots of the lighthouse. Another option for visiting the lighthouse is with Captain Harvey Ferrelle, who was president of Friends of Cockspur Island Lighthouse in 2008 and operates Sweet Lowland Tybee Tours. You can also rent a kayak from North Island Kayak, if you want to get even closer to the lighthouse. The tower is open for climbing, and there is a guestbook you can sign in the lantern room. Jason Jennette provided these photographs of the tower's uniqueprow-like feature, the thirteen stairs leading up to the entrance, and the inside of the tower. Note that there is no railing inside the tower, and the lower bricks are slippery since they are covered with water at high tide.

The lighthouse is owned by the National Park Service. Grounds/tower open.

Find the closest hotels to Cockspur Island Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Joanne writes:
Touring the fort is a great precursor to finding the light. Again, keep your binoculars for the best view.

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Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.