Lying within the state of Alabama, Mobile Bay is an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico.
The mouth is formed by the Fort Morgan peninsula on the eastern side and Dauphin Island, a barrier island on the western side. Mobile Bay is 31 miles long and 24 miles wide. It is the only entrance to the port of Mobile at its northwestern end.
Roughly three miles offshore from the primary Mobile Bay entrance is a place called Sand Island. In the early 1800’s it measured approximately 400 acres in size and was a distinct hazard to ships entering the mouth of the bay.
The logical way, in Washington, DC, to warn shipping of a hazard was to build a lighthouse on it; even when the locals warned against building a house on sand. The first one, built in 1838, was destroyed in the Civil War. In 1873, the replacement was completed on a stone foundation as a Brownstone, conical tower rising to a height of 131 feet. It had a second order Fresnel lens.
Sand Island itself faced continuous erosion, to the point where granite blocks were being added to the island to try and stave off the destruction of the light. Also, on the island was a boat house and a two-story keeper’s home for the families.
The annual report from the Lighthouse Board, for the year 1899, stated that the island was quickly washing away. The keepers at that time were Hans J.G. Olsen and his assistant Neils Nilson. They both came from Norway. In 1901, Mr. Olsen was transferred and Mr. Nilson was promoted to Keeper. His assistant was Thomas Sweeney.
In 1903, Sweeney was replaced by Mathias W. Streckert who, in 1905, was replaced by Andrew Hansen, another Norwegian.
A tropical depression formed in the southwestern Caribbean Sea on September 19 and slowly intensified to a tropical storm the next day headed across the Gulf of Mexico.
The following notations were entered in the logbook by Keeper Nilson:
September 25, 1906: Left the station in the Schooner Reflector at 2 pm for Alabama Port to get provisions.
Sept 26th: During the day and night heavy S.E. Hurricane washed and destroyed the Light Station, the tower remaining. The Assistant Keeper Andrew Hansen and his wife Emma lost their lives. Keeper weather bound at Bark Bolery.
As it swept by Sand Island, it was a category 2 storm with winds at about 110mph and it came ashore at Biloxi. It was reported to be the worst storm they had seen in 170 years.
When a wind direction was given, such as a S.E. Hurricane, it meant that the wind came out of the Southeast and was blowing to the northwest.
Sept 27th: The weather moderate. Keeper trying to hire a boat to proceed to the station.
Sept 30th: Keeper reported to the Lighthouse Office at Mobile.
October 10th: Mr. Charles Thompson arrived at the station for duty at Sand Island Light.
The new assistant, Charles, was the son of William Thompson the former keeper of the Mobile Point Light.
May 3, 1909: Mathius W. Strickert arrived and took charge of the station as Keeper Nilson was being transferred to Round Island Light in Mississippi.
When local residents of an area refer to a hurricane, they are speaking of the violent, stormy weather system that brings torrential rains, and destructive, high velocity winds of over 74 miles-per-hour.
A hurricane is made up of three main parts:
• The eye is the calm region found to the center of the hurricane. Conditions at the eye are dry and not very windy…giving a false sense that the storm is over.
• The eye wall surrounds the eye and is made up of thick cumulonimbus clouds. Here winds are most intense and the rainfall heaviest.
• The rain bands are made up of many thunderstorms circulating out from the eye. These storms provide the energy needed by the eye wall.
Ten years later, in 1916, M.W. Strickert was still the Head Keeper, the 1st Asst. Keeper was M. Brown and the 2nd Asst. was O.H. Beadnell. A hurricane struck on July 15th and the Keepers maintained the light continuously, even though the shaking of the tower was so violent that it threw half the water out of a bucket in the watch room under the lantern. They could not keep the Incandescent Oil Vapor lamp burning and substituted a wick-style lamp. The damage was primarily to the island, although the boathouse was destroyed. To repair the island another 2,700 tons of rock was needed, each weighing one to four tons. The keepers were still living crunched into the base of the tower as a dwelling. There had not been a suitable place for them since the 1906 hurricane. Thus the keeper’s and the assistant’s families lived on the mainland.
On September 9, 1919, the fourth most intensive and deadly storm of the 20th Century passed near Key West. Ten vessels were lost at sea accounting for more than 500 deaths. The hurricane continued westward and built to a category 4 with a wind velocity of 131 to 155 mph.
In the February 1st Lighthouse Service Bulletin issued by the Lighthouse Bureau in Washington, DC, the following article appeared:
“On January 17 the superintendent of the eighth district received information that Sand Island Light Station, Ala., was out on the night of January 16-17, and that a landing party had found the station deserted. Immediately on receipt of this information, the superintendent issued instructions to other keepers in the vicinity to proceed to the station and assume charge, they arriving on the morning of January 18.
An entry in the journal at the light station showed that John M. Reynolds, Keeper, and William L. Emerson, first assistant had left on January 16 for Fort Morgan to meet another assistant keeper recently employed.”
The lighthouse tender Camellia left for Sand Island and made a search outside in the Gulf and along the south shores of Dauphin, Petit Bois, and Horn Islands. Then along the inside of Mississippi Sound to Dauphin Island, where inquiries were made without hearing anything of the missing keepers.
The tender again searched along the south shores of Dauphin, Petit Bois, Horn and Ship Islands, but without success. It is believed that the motor launch with the missing keepers was either swamped in the breakers to the westward of the station or blown out to sea.
The hurricane had continued westward from Mobil Bay and had struck Corpus Christi in South Texas as a Category Four with a wind velocity of 145 miles per hour.
The mystery of the missing keepers brings to mind several unanswered questions which can only bring speculation. Why did Reynolds and Emerson leave the station unmanned? Was it because the first assistant was going to stay ashore while the Reynolds was going to take the new assistant back with him? There would have been no radio or telephone at the Sand Island Station warning them of the massive hurricane blowing their way. But, they were three miles out in the Gulf with an unrestricted view of the horizon.
The Sand Island Light was deactivated eleven years later. Since that time, the pile of granite blocks has managed to provide a secure footing for the lighthouse that now sits on an area of less than one acre. The second order Fresnel lens was removed from the tower in 1971 and is on display at Fort Morgan. The plight of the Sand Island Lighthouse is debatable. The sandy islands have since eroded leaving the tower surrounded by water. Lighthouse Digest has placed it on the endangered list.
Editor’s note: A debt of gratitude is owed to Jim Hall from Dauphin Island, AL for the very valuable research material that he was willing to share with this writer. Also, to Warren Lee who wrote the Sand Island Light House Chronicles.
This story appeared in the
October 2010 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.
All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.