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 Sapelo Island, GA    
Lighthouse accessible by ferry.Lighthouse open for climbing.Interior open or museum on site.Fee charged.Photogenic lighthouse or setting.
Description: Located five miles off the Georgia mainland, Sapelo Island truly has a rich history. Before Thomas Spalding acquired much of the island in 1802, Sapelo had been home to Spanish missionaries, and French and English settlers. Spalding established a productive plantation on the island, growing sea-island cotton, sugar cane, and rice with the help of roughly 400 slaves.

For a token sum of one dollar, Spalding sold five acres at the southern end of the island for the construction of a lighthouse. Winslow Lewis of Boston was contracted on September 14, 1819 to build the brick tower and accompanying dwelling. Lewis also provided the light source: fifteen of his fifteen-inch reflectors and lamps, fitted on a triangular revolving iron frame. When Sapelo Island Lighthouse was activated in 1820, it served as a guide for mariners transiting Doboy Sound to and from the Port of Darien. Located at the mouth of the Altamaha River, Darien was a natural collecting point for lumber and crops produced in Georgia's interior.

In the 1850s, most of America's lighthouses were upgraded with a more efficient lighting apparatus, the Fresnel lens. Sapelo Lighthouse received a fourth-order Fresnel lens in 1854. The tower had been given its distinctive daymark of red and white horizontal bands in 1850.

1820 and 1905 Sapelo Island Lighthouses
In 1855, the Lighthouse Board requested $1,500 for a beacon light on the southern point of Sapelo Island, where it would form a range with Sapelo Lighthouse to assist mariners in locating the proper channel for entering Doboy Sound. Congress supplied the requested amount on August 18, 1856, and the beacon, which exhibited a fixed white light using a fifth-order Fresnel lens, was placed in operation in 1857. Mariners were told to "bring the beacon in range with the main light, and run for them until the outer or east beacon on Wolf island" was at a specific bearing.

Confederate forces removed the lens from Sapelo Island Lighthouse before the Union Army occupied the island in 1862. Spalding had constructed a plantation mansion called "South End House" on the island in 1809. Although Thomas Spalding passed away in 1851, his son continued to live in the mansion until being forced to flee to the mainland by the advancing Union troops.

Following the war, the Lighthouse Board noted the following for the station on Sapelo Island: "The tower and other buildings, much injured by the rebels, need extensive repairs." The keeper's dwelling was almost entirely rebuilt, except for the walls, and a new lantern room and lens were placed atop the tower, which also received a new door and window frames. The light returned to service on the evening of April 15, 1868, along with a beacon mounted on a fifty-foot frame tower located 660 feet southeast of the lighthouse. The beacon's tower was placed on a 100-foot tramway so it could be easily moved to track changes in the offshore channel.

Several free slaves returned to the island after the war and established a settlement on 434 acres deeded to them by the Spaldings. The settlement was named Hog Hammock, after Sampson Hog who served as caretaker for Spalding's hogs.

After the war, a string of six head keepers served at Sapelo Island, none of whom remained for much more than a year. James Cromley, an accomplished cobbler and boot maker, finally brought some stability to the position in 1873. Cromley was able to supplement his meager keeper's income by making footwear for the crews of the vessels that anchored near the lighthouse. Members of the Cromley family served at the lighthouse for sixty years, with Robert Cromley being the final keeper on Sapelo Island.

A fireproof brick oil house, measuring nine by eleven feet and capable of holding 450 five-gallon cans of oil, was added to the station in 1890.

Sapelo Lighthouse prior to restoration
Photograph courtesy Matt Barnett
On October 2, 1898, the most powerful hurricane to ever strike Georgia came ashore near Cumberland Island. The storm killed at least 179 people, and on Sapelo Island, the storm surge covered the floor of the second story of the keeper's dwelling and submerged the oil house. One gable end of the dwelling was undermined and washed away, and the interior of the dwelling was gutted. The dwelling was rebuilt during the following year, and the front range light was discontinued in February 1899.

Keeper William G. Cromley and his family survived the storm by seeking refuge in the lighthouse, but they lost nearly all of their possessions. The Secretary of the Treasury sent a notarized list of Cromley's losses, which totaled $626 and included a $125 organ, to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and recommended that the keeper be fully reimbursed.

The Lighthouse Board had noted in 1890 that the station was starting "to suffer from encroachments of the sea," and following the 1898 hurricane, it requested $40,000 to build a combined tower and dwelling farther inland as it was evident the current structures would not survive much longer.

Congress appropriated $40,000 on June 28, 1902 for a new lighthouse, and a fifty-two test boring was made at the proposed new site the following October and found satisfactory. In November, high tides washed away the beach on Doboy Sound to such an extent that the old tower and dwelling were partially undermined. Being uninhabitable, the dwelling was demolished, and its bricks were placed under and around the base of the threatened tower. The sloping pile of bricks extended twenty feet from the tower, at which point a circle of sheet piling was driven and the bricks were covered with one-and-a-half inches of cement. A house located a half-mile from the station was rented for the keeper.

Contracts for the necessary metalwork and for erecting the dwellings and tower were made in 1904, and a 100-foot steel pyramidal tower was built a few hundred feet north of the brick tower in 1905. Two wooden dwellings were constructed adjacent to the tower, which exhibited its third-order light for the first time on September 18, 1905. The lamp in the tower was fueled by kerosene, which was stored in a brick oil house located near the base of the tower. In 1913, the lighting system was upgraded to incandescent oil vapor (IOV) where kerosene was mixed with air under pressure, creating a fine mist that would saturate a mantle and produce a brilliant light.

Robert H. Cromley, the last keeper of the lighthouse, evidently kept a vigilant watch over the waters surrounding Sapelo Island. In 1920, he discovered the bodies of three men in a creek after he was attracted to the scene by hovering vultures. One man was wearing a lifejacket marked "J.E.," which was taken to mean the men were likely the victims of a shipwreck. Using his binoculars, Cromley discovered three men in February 1928 that were stranded on nearby Wolf Island. The trio were bound for New York in a seaplane when they were forced to land by dense fog. They had been on Wolf Island for thirty hours without food or water when Keeper Cromley spied them. Cromley contacted Howard Coffin who dispatched a boat to rescue them.

The skeleton tower served alongside the original lighthouse until 1933, when, due to the decline in shipping in the area, it was determined that a light on Sapelo Island was no longer necessary. The steel tower was dismantled and shipped to South Fox Island, located in Lake Michigan, where it was active for several years and can still be seen today.

During the lifespan of the second tower, Howard Coffin, chief engineer of Hudson Motors in Detroit, purchased the island from Spalding heirs and undertook a complete rebuilding of the Spalding mansion, adding both an indoor and an outdoor swimming pool as well as a bowling alley. Coffin's guests at the renovated mansion included President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, President and Mrs. Herbert Hoover, and aviator Charles Lindbergh. R.J. Reynolds of the Reynolds Tobacco Company purchased the property from Coffin in 1934. Reynolds built a farm complex that would later house the Sapelo Island Research Foundation, which he established in 1949. Reynolds donated a portion of the southern end of the island to the University of Georgia for use as a marine research laboratory in 1954.

In 1969, the northern part of Sapelo Island was sold to the State of Georgia and became the R.J. Reynolds Wildlife Refuge. The 206-acre southern portion of the island, which includes the lighthouse, was purchased jointly by the State of Georgia and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 1991 at a cost of $500,000, with the state chipping in $150,000, the U.S. Department of Commerce $100,000, and a private donor $250,000. This acreage was set aside as the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve.

The original brick lighthouse, oil house and cistern were meticulously restored over an eighth-month period in 1998 at a cost of $490,000. A spiral staircase was rebuilt inside the lighthouse permitting visitors to climb the tower for an elevated view of Doboy Sound. The lighthouse was painted with six bright stripes, and Governor Zell Miller was given the honor of flipping a switch on September 6, 1998 that activated a light in the lantern room, which had been dark for nearly a century. Side-by-side photographs exhibited inside the oil house show the dramatic transformation that occurred during the 1998 restoration.

Today, visitors can take a tour of Sapelo Island, which includes a ferry ride to the island and a chance to see the marine institute, Hog Hammock, the Reynolds Mansion, the 1820 lighthouse, the foundation of the 1905 lighthouse, and its oil house. A metal observation tower was built atop the 1905 lighthouse foundation sometime around 2002.

In 2011, professional archaeologists, assisted by volunteers, unearthed the remains of the 19th-century lightkeeper's house that was undermined during the 1898 hurricane. The house's foundations, whose exact location had been unknown for many years, were discovered beneath several inches of sand.

Hog Hammock is still home to about seventy people, many of whom are descendants of slaves who worked on Sapelo plantations. The community is one of just a few sites that preserve the Gullah culture and language, a rich mixture of African, European, and American customs and dialects.

Head Keepers: Jeremiah Lester (at least 1821 at least 1824), William Donnelly (at least 1828 at least 1841), Henry M. Caulder (at least 1843), William Thomas (1845 at least 1847), Robert B. Mason (1849 at least 1851), Robert Hale ( 1853), Alexander Hazzard (1853 1862), W.W. Brown (1869), James C. Clark (1869 1870), Montgomery P. Styles (1870 1871), J.T. Clancy (1871), Hiram Hammett (1871 1872), John Bradwell (1872 1873), James Cromley, Sr. (1873 1889), William G. Cromley (1890 1900), James Cromley, Jr. (1900 at least 1921), Robert Henry Cromley (at least 1928 - 1933).

Photo Gallery: 1 2 3 4 5

References

  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, Informational Pamphlet.
  3. "The Lighthouses of Georgia," Buddy Sullivan, The Keeper's Log, Spring 1988.
  4. Georgia's Lighthouses and Historic Coastal Sites, Kevin McCarthy, 1998.

Location: Located on the southern end of Sapelo Island, nine miles east of Darien.
Latitude: 31.39124
Longitude: -81.2857

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


Travel Instructions: To visit Sapelo Lighthouse a 30-minute ferry ride and a tour of the island are required. Four-hour tours that include the lighthouse are offered on Saturdays at 9 a.m. From June through Labor Day, an additional tour is offered on Fridays at 8:30 a.m. An extended tour which also includes the mansion is offered on the last Tuesday of the month from March through October. For tour reservations and further information, call (912) 437-3224. You can also tour the island with Sapelo Sights.

The ferry dock and Sapelo Island Visitor Center are located eight miles northeast of Darien. From Interstate 95, take Exit 11 and follow Highway 99, 9.3 miles to Landing Road. Turn left on Landing Road and follow it to the visitor center.

The lighthouse is owned by Georgia State Parks. Grounds/tower open.

Find the closest hotels to Sapelo Island Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
After arriving on the island by ferry, we boarded a school bus, where Yvonne Grovner served as our driver and tour guide. Besides the stop at the newly restored lighthouse and the ruins of the 1905 tower, we also visited the general store in Hog Hammock, the plantation mansion, Spalding's landing strip, and the beach. Yvonne shared the history of the island with us and also demonstrated her skill at basket weaving with sweetgrass and fishing with a net.

If you want to spend the night on the island, large groups can rent out the Reynolds Mansion, which was stayed in by President Carter and his family in 1980. Several homes in Hog Hammock can also be rented, at I would imagine a much cheaper rate.

Joanne writes:
Our hostess/tour guide/bus driver was awesome! It's great that she actually lives on the island and works there. Although the light and its accompanying range light were the highlights, the entire island was a great experience.

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