Digest>Archives> May 2005

The Unwavering Dedication of Captain Richard Dennis Millen

By Judy Bloodgood Bander


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Richard Dennis Millen, captain of the Tybee Knoll ...

Tybee Island, Georgia is one of the few areas that had both a lighthouse and a light boat serving at the same time. Richard Dennis Millen was a keeper on the light boat at Tybee Island Knoll.

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This old microfilm copy shows the July 1851 ...

The daymark tower on Tybee Island was one of the first structures built in the new colony of Georgia. Located at the mouth of the Savannah River, the 90-foot tower was the tallest structure in America when it was built in 1736. It was constructed using cedar piles and bricks. The name Tybee is a Native American Euchee Indian word meaning “salt.”

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An old illustration of Tybee Island Lighthouse in ...

The tower on Tybee Island would be rebuilt two more times (and in different places on the island) before the American Revolution. The first tower was destroyed by a storm in 1741. A new wood and stone tower standing 124 feet tall was built in 1742, but the ocean began encroaching and it was also destroyed.

The third tower located further inland and made of brick in 1773 was 100 feet high. It had a wooden interior staircase. It eventually was converted to a lighthouse, and a keeper named Higgins used spermaceti candles and reflectors to produce its light in 1791. (Spermaceti was a pearly white, waxy, translucent solid oil from the heads of sperm whales and other cetaceans.)

That tower was almost entirely destroyed by Confederate troops from nearby Fort Pulaski in 1862 when they burned the interior wooden steps and upper parts of the tower. A new lighthouse, 154 feet tall, was built using the lower 60 feet of the old tower as foundation.

The light boat station was near Tybee Island Knoll. The light boat was located 0.7 miles inside the Savannah River and 340 degrees from the lighthouse. One of the early light boat captains was Richard Dennis Millen.

Richard was born in January 1801, in Savannah. At 14 years and seven months, he was one of the youngest cadets to be admitted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He was a cadet for two years before his father requested his son’s resignation in 1817. Richard was needed to help with the family mercantile business.

The business must not have worked out for young Richard; he became a midshipman in the U.S. Navy in 1820. On November 8, 1824, Richard sailed out of New York Harbor with a fine wind, aboard the frigate Constitution (“Old Ironsides”) on his way to the Mediterranean Sea. He also served aboard the U.S.S. Brandywine before leaving the Navy. Records show Richard was in the Revenue-Cutter Service from 1827 until 1839.

Having traveled around the world, he may have been ready to settle down. He returned to Savannah where in July 1851, he became captain of the light boat at Tybee Island Knoll. He was paid $500 per annum. The light boat he was on was probably much like the first recorded boat for that assignment which was built in 1857. The wooden vessel had a white oak frame and yellow pine decks, with two red masts. For an anchor, the boat carried a 4,640-ton mushroom anchor as well as two lighter spares. The boat moved by sails arranged in a schooner rig. Lighting apparatus consisted of two lanterns, each with eight oil lamps and 12-inch reflectors. In fog the keeper had a hand operated 1,000-pound bell to ring and a horn to blow.

On May 14, 1856, Richard was appointed keeper of the light boat at Calibogue Sound, South Carolina with the same salary.

As feelings heated up between the northern states and their southern brothers, Richard received a letter in 1860 informing him that the Lighthouse Service no longer needed his services. He retained the title of captain the rest of his life. At the same time the Confederates occupied the lighthouse, Richard organized the “Savannah Cadets” as a way of training the youth (ages 14 to 17) of Savannah to protect their loved ones and the city. He promised to train them as he had trained as a cadet at West Point. He lost a son later in the war.

In 1866, he is listed as a policeman in Savannah and several years later as the keeper of the powder magazine (storage place of munitions) at Springfield Plantation in the Savannah area. Richard did not live long enough to experience the Charleston earthquake in August 1886 that extended already present cracks in the thick walls of the Tybee Island Lighthouse. It displaced the lens as well as broke the attachments to its upper ring.

Today the light boat is gone, the station discontinued in 1880 and was replaced by range lights and buoys. However, the 154-foot lighthouse still stands on the island, and its first order Fresnel lens remains active. The Tybee Island Historical Society now maintains the octagonal lighthouse. The fixed white light can be seen for 18 miles. There is a museum as well as several intact support buildings, including the head keeper’s house, two assistant keepers’ houses, a summer kitchen, and a fuel storage building.

This story appeared in the May 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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