Digest>Archives> November 1998

After 93 Years, Sapelo Light Shines Again

By Genevieve Wynegar


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Just inside the newly renovated Sapelo Island ...
Photo by: Genevieve Wynegar

A beacon of light, dark these past 93 years was once again seen by water travellers and sailors, as the Sapelo Island Lighthouse was relighted on September 6, in ceremonies featuring Georgia Gov. Zell Miller. The lighthouse illuminated the waters above Doboy Sound on the Georgia coastline near Darien, as it had done throughout most of the 19th century.

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The newly restored and renovated lighthouse at ...
Photo by: Genevieve Wynegar

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The restored range beacon is located about 100 ...
Photo by: Genevieve Wynegar

With the eight-month, $490,000 renovation complete, the stucco and brick lighthouse, built in 1820 and once in ruins, now features its distinctive red and white stripes. It will be operated by Georgia Department of Natural Resources, with the approval of the United States Coast Guard.

Gov. Miller, former Gov. George Busbee and a host of dignitaries from all over the state of Georgia descended on McIntosh County and Sapelo Island, which can only be reached by ferry. The island is located about 55 miles south of Savannah on the Georgia coast.

Over 100 boats and watercraft, the McIntosh Flotilla, anchored just off the southern tip of Sapelo Island to view the outdoor relighting ceremonies. As darkness fell, lights from the flotilla twinkled throughout the sound. Also attending was a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, which arrived in the sound at dusk.

An invitation-only guest list, including residents of Sapelo Island, and local and state dignitaries numbering 500-plus, were feted at a pre-lighting ceremony reception at the island's R.J. Reynold's mansion.

Gov. Miller commended the restoration effort as a "testament to the devotion of the history of the lighthouse, including its construction in 1820, designed be Boston lighthouse authority, Winslow Lewis, at a cost of $14,500. The governor also commended individuals and organizations, both in public and private sectors, who have worked so diligently to bring the entire project to fruition.

Former Governor Busbee has served as the chairman of the Sapelo Island Restoration Foundation, which raised funds through private and corporate donations, as federal ISTEA funds for the lighthouse restoration. Busbee served as master of ceremonies for the relighting.

DNR Commissioner Loncie Barett welcomed the assemblage to the historic event as he commended a number of people and organizations for their devotion to the project, including DNR Chief Engineer David Freedman, who was described as being so dedicated to the project, "He was even cleaning windows at the site, just hours before the relighting."

Buddy Sullivan, manager of the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, has throughout the project, given a great deal of credit for the lighthouse restoration to Commissioner Barrett.

"He has been very supportive of this project from the start," Sullivan stated, describing Barrett as a "lighthouse buff" who has visited many of the lighthouses on the east and gulf coasts, with his wife Carol.

Sullivan also credited the commissioner with the idea of lighting the light in the 80-foot tower, creating an actual operating lighthouse, as part of the restoration.

The electrically operated light will be historically accurate. "The United State Lighthouse Report for 1892 gave the Sapelo Island Lighthouse a 45-second fixed beam, which could be seen 11 miles out at sea," stated Sullivan.

The new electric beacon replaces the 19th century reflectors that were fueled first by whale oil, then later by kerosene.

An adjacent house, long-gone, housed the lighthouse keeper and his family. The keeper was kept busy throughout the night hours carrying fuel up the 77 cypress steps to the light and wiping soot from the windows, so that the light might be visible to passing ships.

In 1905, because of erosion of the land around the lighthouse due to recent hurricanes, the structure was declared unsafe. A new 100 foot steel pyramid lighthouse was built a few hundred feet north of the brick tower. This structure was in operation until 1933, when it was dismantled and shipped to Michigan in 1934. It remains standing today.

The restoration project included reconstruction of the interior spiral staircase, repair work to the brick and stucco exterior, repainting the structures original red and white bands, new glass in the lighthouse's windows, cupola and lantern, and the modern electric light.

The original 77 cypress steps, spiralling to the top of the lighthouse were too badly damaged to save during the renovation. They have been replaced with 77 steps made of the more durable Georgia pine.

Also included in the renovation of the lighthouse was the small brick oil house, built around 1900, which soon will house an interpretive center. It will feature lighthouse artifacts and exhibits, including old photographs of the structure.

The 1877 era cast iron range beacon has also been restored and work has been conducted on the white brick cistern, which dates back to 1820 and is located adjacent to the oil house.

An ecological-historical trail, linking the various lighthouse sites and structures, has been funded as an ISTEA project through the Georgia Department of Transportation.

The Sapelo Island Lighthouse now joins the two other Georgia lighthouses at Tybee Island and St. Simons Island. There are two other lighthouses on the Georgia coast in ruins, although 15 working lighthouses once existed along Georgia's coastline.

Sullivan, as Reserve Manager on the island supervised the restoration, and will include the restored lighthouse in public island tours.

"We're thrilled with the results of the renovation," he noted. "It's just like we've stepped back a hundred years in time. This lighthouse is a lighthouse for all the people of Georgia.

"It's the People's Lighthouse."

About the author: Genevieve Wynegar is a staff reporter for the Darien News in Darien Georgia. We wish to thank her and the Darien News for this wonderful story, photos, and their unyielding interest in preserving America's lighthouse history.

This story appeared in the November 1998 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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