In the 1850s, most of America’s lighthouses were upgraded with a more efficient lighting apparatus, the Fresnel lens. Sapelo Lighthouse received a revolving fourth-order Fresnel lens in 1854 that changed the characteristic of the light to fixed white, punctuated every forty seconds by a flash. Four years previously, the tower had been given its distinctive daymark of red and white horizontal bands to help mariners more easily identify it during daylight hours. Prior to the installation of the Fresnel lens with its single lamp, the lighting apparatus in Sapelo Island Lighthouse consumed roughly 540 gallons of oil annually, or thirty-six gallons in each of its fifteen lamps.
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 that the tower and the station’s other buildings had been“much injured by the rebels” and needed 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. The iron range tower that remains on the island was set up in 1877 to take the place of the decayed wooden one.
After the war, a string of seven 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 when he was placed in charge of the light in 1873 at the age of seventy-four! Cromley was able to supplement his meager keeper’s income by making footwear for the crews of the vessels that anchored near the lighthouse. Four of Cromley’s sons would serve as assistant keepers at the lighthouse, and three of these would follow Cromley as head keeper, with Robert Cromley being the final keeper on Sapelo Island. The Cromley family was in charge of the light for sixty years, more than half of the time it was active.
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.
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, who was promoted to head keeper after his father passed away in 1889 at the age of ninety, survived the storm by seeking refuge in the lighthouse with his family, 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-foot-deep test boring made at the proposed new site the following October found the character of the underlying ground to be 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.
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 life jacket 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 was bound for New York in a seaplane when dense fog forced them to land. 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 darkened 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 and 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.
The original brick lighthouse, oil house, and cistern were meticulously restored over an eighth-month period in 1998 at a cost of $490,000. As part of this work, a spiral staircase with seventy-seven steps 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 nineteenth-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.