Digest>Archives> Mar/Apr 2022

The Lighthouse Steeped in Shadows: St. Simons

By Aden Tate


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Nighttime view of St. Simons Lighthouse on St. ...
Photo by: William A. Britten

Perhaps some places are not supposed to let ships pass by. If a region seems to be doing everything in its power to prevent it, how can we deduce otherwise?

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Georgia’s 1811 St. Simons Lighthouse, shown here, ...

Listen to the tale, and you may come to the same conclusion.

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Georgia’s 2nd St. Simons Lighthouse is shown here ...

It was in 1810 that a man by the name of James Gould finally accomplished his dream: he put a lighthouse on St. Simons Island, right off the coast of Georgia.

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Vintage photo of St. Simons Lighthouse. ...

But what he had done was never meant to last.

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In the days before drones, Coast Guard ...

As the Civil War raged years later, the South dynamited the structure to pieces, for fear that the North would use it against them when a retreat was sounded. And such wouldn’t be the only time this lighthouse was associated with destruction.

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The St. Simons Front Beacon was wrecked in a ...

The War was now over, Reconstruction was under way, and the need for lumber to rebuild homes was sending more and more ships towards Georgia. It was decided a new lighthouse needed to be built on St. Simons to accommodate such.

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On October 17, 1896 a new St. Simons Front Beacon ...

Men were sent to the task, but malaria plagued the construction team for four years, hindering their efforts, and by the time St. Simons had a lighthouse once more, two men lay in an early grave.

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Carl Olaf Svendsen, who was the head keeper at ...

Such was life though, and for the keeper and assistant who moved onto the grounds, they thought nothing of it.

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Georgia’s St. Simons Lighthouse. (Lighthouse ...
Photo by: Joe Foster

What happened next is proof that both fish and friends begin to stink after three days. And if it’s five years we’re talking about? Well, then, things can turn deadly rather quickly.

To man the lighthouse, a small two-story structure had been built nearby where the lighthouse keeper was to live on the main floor, and the keeper’s assistant was to live on the second. Connecting the two living quarters was a central staircase.

Frederick Osborne was an Englishman and former Union soldier who had taken the job as keeper. He moved into the dwelling with his small family, only to lose his small son, Frederick, there a few years later.

Assisting Osborne was John Stevens. He and his wife lived on the second floor.

The two men kept the lighthouse running 24/7. There were no breaks – no vacations – that could be afforded. They had taken a post and others’ lives depended upon it. However, as the years wore by, bitter feelings would begin to take hold in both men’s hearts.

Perhaps, the strain was just too much. The loss of little Freddie, the constant isolation, having two hens on one nest – whatever it was, things quickly soon reached a boiling point five years after the men moved in.

In 1880, Stevens had gone to the mainland – perhaps to retrieve supplies – when something happened which nobody has been able to clear up since. Two stories have been born of the time, and there are staunch supporters of each.

One tale has it that Osborne had made some rather suggestive remarks to the wife of his coworker. The other has it that Osborne’s stiff and demeaning manner had caused him to insult Stevens’ wife.

How exactly one would expect to carry on an affair in a house with another man and your own wife – on an island – is beyond reckoning, but either way, when Stevens got back from the mainland, he was furious.

Over the next several days tensions simmered between the two men, with neither side being willing to back down. Honor was at stake.

And finally, on February 29, a truly special day, one man would enter his sick bed.

The time for words had developed into the time for action. The argument came to a head and both the men went outside to settle the score. Osborne seems to have been afraid of the challenge though, for after Stevens threatened to “chastise him,” Osborne pulled a pistol he’d concealed and demanded he not step any closer.

To threaten a man’s life is to take things to a new level, and Stevens responded in kind. He marched back to the dwelling and grabbed his double-barreled shotgun. Loaded with buckshot from a prior deer hunt, the trigger was pulled as Osborne walked the path to the front gate of the house. From a distance of 98 feet, four balls found their way into Osborne’s flesh, and so began the death of Frederick Osborne, the Englishman.

One must remember that there would’ve been wives and children present throughout the entire affair, and Stevens was instantly mortified with what he had done. He immediately sent for aid before turning himself in to the police, where he was arrested for murder.

Osborne lingered with his wounds for ten days before finally succumbing to death on March 10, 1880.

Whether Osborne had continued to threaten Stevens as he approached the house perhaps, we’ll never know, but Stevens was declared to have only acted in self-defense before a jury in nearby Brunswick not long after.

The remaining members of both families left St. Simons that year never to return. For them, the lighthouse only illuminated their pain.

Though the men were gone, the next several years at St. Simons Lighthouse were still filled with strange happenings. Almost immediately after the fatal events had transpired, the new lighthouse keeper, George Ashbell, reported doors mysteriously slamming, footsteps being heard traipsing about the place at night, and a dark figure could occasionally be seen, high in the tower.

As expected, Ashbell didn’t stick around for long. An earthquake shook the lighthouse shortly after he left. The very next year, the lighthouse attracted yet another storm – this time of a different nature – as it was struck by lightning. After a series of other keepers came and went, Carl Svendsen entered the picture in 1907.

Like his predecessors before him, there came a time when Svendsen had to briefly leave the lighthouse, leaving his wife behind. Naturally, the lighthouse experienced a malfunction deep into the night, leaving Mrs. Svendsen attempting to fend for herself.

She struggled with the mechanism for quite some time before giving in to despair. Then, she heard a noise. Though she’d been alone, when she turned around, Osborne stood there before her – fixing the light. Mrs. Svendsen promptly fainted, waking up some time later. When she did, another surprise awaited her: the light was working perfectly – and she was alone once more.

Strange happenings and sightings still surround the lighthouse of St. Simons today, and should you visit, you’ll hear further spectral stories.

So, what can be said about such a structure? After dynamite, disease, earthquake, lightning, death, and ghost has filled its lurid history, does it serve its intended purpose – to keep disaster at bay?

You tell me.

This story appeared in the Mar/Apr 2022 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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