Lighthouses that stood on piles that were screwed into sandy or muddy bottoms were known as screw pile lights. In the United States, these lighthouses were first built near the mouth of the Potomac River in Chesapeake Bay. The most recognized structure of that type was called the Thomas Point Shoal Light (Shallow is synonymous with shoal) and the oldest screw pile lighthouse, in Maryland, was the Seven Foot Knoll Light built in 1856.
A sandbank is a large deposit of sand forming a mound, hillside, bar or shoal. A sailing vessel moving at full-speed, ten miles offshore, could have her bottom ripped open running aground in a sandbank. Thus, a screw pile lighthouse built at the highest point on the sandbank would save lives. The Middle Bay Light, in Alabama’s Mobile Bay, located ten miles from shore and sitting in eight feet of water is a good example.
An even more destructive underwater obstacle to shipping, located in a bay, is a sandbar. It is a ridge of sand built up by currents, especially in a river or in coastal waters. The sandbar becomes a wall of sand, sometimes stretching from shore to shore across a bay. Hence a channel has to be dredged and maintained at some point in the bar and mariners would refer to the break in the sandbar as a cut. A boat with a shallow draft would easily pass over the sandbar, but a large vessel would only have safe passage by way of the cut.
Two identical looking screw pile lighthouses were built in Galveston Bay in 1854.
One of them was named the Half Moon Shoal Light, about a mile north of the present Texas City Dike and two miles east of Shoal Point. Half Moon sat in water that was about two feet deep on top of a sandbank. The station was a red and white painted frame structure with galleries surrounding the main portion of the building and a captain’s walk around the light. A bell served as a fog warning device.
In the 1830s, land grants were awarded to veterans of the republic of Texas army and navy. A number of their families settled on the western shore of the bay at a site that was known as Shoal Point. The presence of the Half Moon Shoal Lighthouse enabled the town to grow and in 1893 it was renamed Texas City.
The other twin structure was a square dwelling painted white with red stripes, raised 35 feet above sea level and was named the Redfish Bar Light. The Redfish Sandbar ran across Galveston Bay from Smith Point to Edwards Point, a distance of about eight miles. This bar formed a barrier to ship passage for those bound for ports in the Houston, Texas area. Ships were forced to seek the deepest point on the bar for a passage. The light station was built very near an 18-foot cut.
By the late 1890s the sand had shifted and this station was a bit out of position to the original cut, so the government dredged a ship channel that “cut” through Redfish Bar and another screw pile lighthouse was built to mark the new channel. The Redfish Bar Cut Light was located about a mile from the first station and was first lit in March of 1900.
Early records show that John Smith was appointed as the head keeper at the Half Moon Shoals Light on August 15, 1881. He was paid $640 per year. He resigned with seventeen years of service on April 4, 1898 and the station duties were taken over by the assistant keeper, George R. Smith, who was either John’s son or younger brother. George became head keeper on June 11, 1898. He was transferred to the Red Fish Bar Light on April 15, 1899 and the new keeper at Half Moon Shoals was Charles K. Bowens.
Eleven months later on March 20, 1900, George R. Smith was transferred to the newly erected Red Fish Bar Cut Light. Over a three year span of time, he was the head keeper of three different screw pile lighthouses in Galveston Bay; each of them built to the same specifications. His first two assignments were in forty-five year old buildings, but now he was in a brand, spanking new house that he kept neat as a pin.
On Saturday, September 8, 1900, his brother Leon had gone ashore for supplies and George was busy getting everything “ship shape” for the multitude of Sunday visitors that were coming, each week, to check out the brand new lighthouse. George saw some thunderhead clouds building up out in the Gulf of Mexico and figured they were going to get some more rain. Well, it was typical for south Texas this time of year.
He was polishing brass in the tower when a sudden gust of wind shook the place. Out over the Gulf, the sky was black and the clouds were rolling in almost over head. It looked like they were in for a heavy storm, so he went down the stairs to check that the station boat was lashed securely to its mooring. When he stepped out onto the gallery a gust of wind almost blew him over the railing and into the waters below that was now churning. “Leon is going to have to wait ‘til morning to come out here,” he said aloud to himself. When he was sure the boat was secure, he went inside to batten down the doors and windows. The steady roar of the wind sounded like a fast freight train steaming down the tracks outside the lighthouse.
The rain came down in force as the winds continued to get stronger. George went into the tower, lit the lamp and started the Fresnel lens rotating. By five o’clock the wind direction had shifted to the east and then to the southeast; the sky was as dark as night. The keeper was so occupied with the raging storm that he forgot to eat supper. By 11 o’clock in the evening, the wind was southerly and diminishing. By two o’clock in the morning, it was almost calm with a light rain falling.
By dawn’s early light, George was shocked by the sight of a very large steamer that was reefed in the sandbar very close to the lighthouse. The bay was cluttered with floating wooden planks, furniture pieces, small boats that were overturned and other debris. “It must have been a hurricane,” George said aloud.
The storm’s origins are unclear, due to the limited observation ability at the end of the 19th century. Because wireless telegraphy was in its infancy, shipboard reports could only be made after a vessel put in at a harbor.
It’s believed today that a Category 4 storm packing winds of 135 mph devastated Galveston Island. One third of the city was completely destroyed. In a city of 37,000, the estimated death toll was between 6,000 and 12,000 people. On September 8th, The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 made landfall and is still considered to be the deadliest natural disaster ever to strike the United States.
On the following Monday, Leon managed to row a boat through the debris surrounding the lighthouse and step up to relieve his older brother. Leon had spent the weekend at Eagle’s Point, on the western side of the bay.
“I’ve got some sad news to tell you, George,” Leon said. “During the height of the storm, the steamship Kendal Castle broke free from Pier 33 in Galveston and drifted directly over the Half Moon Shoals Lighthouse, crushing it into the sand. Charlie Bowers was killed instantly.”
“Oh God, that’s awful. I always liked Charles,” George said as he wiped his eyes with his kerchief. “His poor mother will be heartbroken.”
“It appears as though you were lucky to get transferred to Red Fish Bar when you did. None too soon, I reckon,” said Leon.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Lighthouse Board had established a ruling that the keepers were to only record wind direction, temperatures and shipwrecks in the logbooks. So, the hand-written logbooks, stored in the National Archives, do not reveal much about the life of old George R. Smith who was a keeper for over twenty five years. However, by carefully reading the Lighthouse Service Bulletins of that era, one discovers that his brother, Leon Smith became an assistant keeper at the Red Fish Bar Cut Light, sometime in the 1900s; as these accounts of heroism are noted:
“On January 16, 1918 George R. Smith, keeper, and Leon Smith, assistant keeper, of Red Fish Bar Cut Light Station, Texas, went to the assistance of a man in a disabled launch in Galveston Bay; took him to the light station and gave him food. The man was then taken back to the launch and the launch towed about a mile to a tugboat.”
“On the night of December 13, 1921, Leon R. Smith, assistant keeper, Red Fish Bar Cut Light Station rendered valuable assistance to a launch with two men and two women aboard which had grounded in the vicinity of the light station.” (One might assume that their launch missed the “cut” and grounded on the sandbar).
“George R. Smith, keeper of Red Fish Bar Cut Light Station, and Leon R. Smith, assistant keeper, on November 29, 1923, rendered assistance to the launch Mallarce, with three men aboard had grounded in the vicinity of the light station.”
Undoubtedly, George and Leon probably saved countless other boaters that got into trouble on the sandbar, but these are the only accounts recorded in the Lighthouse Service Bulletins.
While on a photography junket, in 1975, with a plan to photograph all the lighthouses on the Gulf Coast and gather as much first-hand information about the keepers of the lights, as I could, this writer spoke with a lady at a bait shop on Eagle’s Point, located at the tip of a point jutting into the middle of Galveston Bay, north of Texas City and near San Leon. A lady named Lillian told a story about her husband, J.A. Valentino, a local shrimp fisherman, who serviced the light station in the 1920s. As the story was told: “In 1923, the Smith Brothers were on the station, two and a half miles offshore, near Red Fish Island. George R. Smith loved the lighthouse and vowed he would stay there ‘til he died. “The Lighthouse Service retired him in April 1924 and Mr. Valentino refused to row out and break the news to the old man that he was going to have to leave. ‘It will break the old man’s heart,’ said Mr. Valentino...so, he relayed the information to George’s brother, Leon, who promised he would be the one to tell him.”
G. R. Smith stood his last watch at Red Fish from 12 midnight until 5:36 a.m. on April 7, 1924. Then L.R. Smith stood both watches (6:30 - 12M) and (12M - 5:35 a.m.) for three days as acting keeper.
On April 10th, John D. Balsille became the head keeper and Leon R. Smith remained as the assistant keeper.
“November 23, 1924, J.D. Basille, keeper and L.R. Smith, assistant keeper of Red Fish Bar Cut Light Station conveyed in the station launch to San Leon a fishing party of five men who were marooned on a reef in the vicinity of the lighthouse, and on November 24 a fishing party of two men and two women who were unable to get away from a reef in the vicinity of the light station during a strong northwest wind.”
“Leon R. Smith, assistant keeper of Red Fish Cut Bar Lighthouse, Tex., on May 3, 1925, rescued three men found clinging to an overturned skiff more than a mile distant from the station.”
J.D. Basille transferred to the Houston Channel Light and Leon R. Smith transferred to the Galveston Jetty Light, in December, 1927. The Red Fish Bar Cut Light was discontinued and an occulting white light was established.
Like old soldiers, lighthouse keepers just fade away. George R. Smith and the screw pile lighthouses on Galveston Bay were no longer in service. But for years to come, many a shrimp fisherman recalled that George kept a good light.
This story appeared in the
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