Lighthouse history on
goes back some 175 years when the existing brick tower, long abandoned, was first built to serve the active seaport of Darien nearby.
The tall, brick tower on the south end of the island is Sapelo’s sentinel of the sea. It serves as a silent monument to the former glory days of water-borne commerce in the region when maritime activity was in flower along the length of coastal Georgia. Shipping from ports along the U.S. eastern seaboard relied on shore bound beacons navigational aids such as Sapelo lighthouse as they transited the often treacherous shallow estuaries of tidewater Georgia, or threaded their way along the inland waterway between the barrier sea islands bounded by salt marshes, tidal mud flats and the hidden shoals guarding the approaches to the sounds.
The small seaport of Darien, sixty miles south of Savannah, became a shipping center of importance during the first two decades of the nineteenth century due to its ideal position at the mouth of the Altamaha River, which flowed to the coast from the interior of Georgia. Large shipments of Sea island cotton as well as inland grown cotton, along with locally cultivated rice from the local tidewater plantations, were exported from Darien in increasing numbers of ships calling on the port.
In 1808 five acres of land owned by Thomas Spalding on the south end of Sapelo Island was ceded to the United States government for the purpose of establishing a lighthouse to guide mariners into the local port.
A deed, dated July 15, 1816 shows that for the sum of one dollar, Spalding sold the five acres to the Treasury Department’s Lighthouse Establishment.
A U.S. government contract with Winslow Lewis of Boston on September 14, 1819 called for the construction of a 65-foot brick tower topped by a 15-foot iron lantern containing 16-inch reflectors to Lewis’s specifications. An adjoining lighthouse keeper’s dwelling was also a part of the contract. The contracted cost of the project was $14,500. Record Group 26 (U.S. coast Guard) of the National Archives has a copy of the original contract for the construction of the Sapelo lighthouse by Winslow Lewis. Dated January 13, 1820, it states in part:
Winslow Lewis agrees and is engaged to fit up and light the lantern on the Light House at Sapelo Island...with fifteen of the Patent Lamps and reflectors, each sixteen inches, fitted on a triangular revolving iron frame...
In 1822, the federal government constructed a wooden range beacon in the marsh flats on the north end of Wolf Island across Doboy Sound from Sapelo light. This structured operated until 1898.
Alexander Hazzard was appointed head keeper of the Sapelo lighthouse in 1853 at a salary of $600 per year. A fourth order Fresnel lens was installed atop the tower in 1854. Hazzard served as light keeper until early 1862 when the light was abandoned by retreating Confederate forces stationed on Sapelo Island. The Confederates removed the Fresnel lens and destroyed the reflector system, but left the rest of the facility intact. It was repaired and reactivated by the U.S. Lighthouse Services in 1868.
of the Lighthouse Board for 1869 noted of Sapelo that “the revolving machinery has been repaired on the lantern and some small repairs were made to the parapet around the lantern...the station is in generally good condition.” It was at this time that the tower was painted with wide, alternating red and white horizontal bands. In 1877, a cast iron range beacon was constructed 660 feet east of the main tower. This beacon still stands today.
A local tradition began in 1873 when Irishman James Cromley was appointed as keeper of the light, being the first of three generations of his family to serve in that capacity.
A severe hurricane and tidal wave in October 1898 resulted in the foundations of the Sapelo light being seriously undermined. For several hours the tide covered the lower 18 feet of the tower as much of Sapelo Island was under water. The Lighthouse Board’s
for 1900 indicates that the keeper’s residence was torn down and a portion of it was utilized to stabilize the foundations of the brick tower. This effort at stabilization was not successful and, in 1902, surveys were conducted to determine the siting for a new lighthouse to be built several hundred feet north of the brick tower. On September 18, 1905, the new lighthouse, a 100-foot steel pyramidal tower with a kerosene-lit flashing light, was activated. Two frame cottages for the keeper and the assistant keeper and their families were constructed adjoining the new tower.
According to Lighthouse Service documents found in Record Group 26, the new steel Sapelo lighthouse converted to an incandescent oil-vapor system of lighting in 1913. By this time, activities on the south end of Sapelo were on the decline due to the decreasing amount of shipping utilizing the Darien harbor. Altamaha River logging and sawmilling were declining because of the overcutting of the upriver pine forests. Shipping traffic was non-existent by 1933, the year the Lighthouse Service decided to deactivate the Sapelo station.
According to a Revocable License found in Record Group 26, Robert H. Cromley retired in 1938 as the last keeper of the Sapelo lighthouse. In 1938-40, the steel tower was dismantled and its parts were shipped to a new site at South Fox Island in Lake Michigan where it still stands today. The final duty of Cromley was to oversee the tearing down of the two frame keeper’s cottages on the site and to sell the lumber for scrap on the mainland.
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