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Lighthouse History

The Sapelo Island Lighthouse restoration project began in earnest in 1994 when the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) submitted a grant application for the restoration project to the Georgia Department of Transportation. (DOT). A grant was subsequently awarded to restore the lighthouse using funds provided through the federal ISTEA (Intermodel Surface Transportation Enhancement Act) program. This was the beginning of a unique and challenging project that transformed the derelict lighthouse to its original proud stature as a beacon of Georgia's coastal and maritime heritage.

Prior to preparing construction documents, a considerable amount of research and planning had to be conducted. The first order of business was a thorough inspection of the lighthouse. Since parts of the interior staircase were missing, no one had been on top of the lighthouse in recent years. The Georgia DNR helicopter was used to conduct an aerial inspection of the top of the lighthouse. Once it was determined that the top was structurally sound, the Georgia Power Company furnished a bucket truck to provide access to the top of the lighthouse. This was the first time in 20 years that anyone had been atop the lighthouse. The remnants of the wooden staircase were removed by rapellers from the Georgia DNR Search and Rescue Team and detailed measurements were made of the entire structure by the restoration architect. An archaeological investigation was conducted around the lighthouse, and soil borings were obtained adjacent to the lighthouse to verify the adequacy of the lighthouse foundation.

Once all this information was analyzed, construction documents were prepared for the restoration project. The circa 1890 lighthouse was selected as the restoration period. The lighthouse in 1890 included the red and white day mark as well as the adjacent fuel storage building and nearby cast iron range beacon. The restoration project included the following elements: repairing the stucco on the lighthouse exterior and painting the original white and red horizontal bands, replacing the doors and windows, reconstructing the interior wooden spiral staircase, repairing and/or replacing the metal and installing new glass in the lantern room, and installing a modern light that has the same 45-second flash as the original light. The project also included repairing the adjacent fuel storage building and cistern and repairing the metal range beacon constructed in the 1870's. This metal range beacon is the only one known to exist today in the United States. The project also included clearing the grounds and repairing the fuel storage building at the site of the steel tower.

Construction began in November of 1997 and was completed in August of 1998. By far, the most challenging aspect of construction was the new staircase. Each stair tread had to be individually measured, cut, and installed. This was a painstaking process that took several months. The contractor also had to deal with snakes that made their home in the space between the interior and exterior brick walls of the lighthouse. The project culminated with a dedication and relighting ceremony on September 6, 1998. On hand to throw the ceremonial light switch were Georgia Governor Zell Miller, former Georgia Governor George Busbee, DNR Commissioner Lonice Barrett, DNR Board Chairman Ben Porter, DOT Commissioner Wayne Shackelford, and many other dignitaries and guests. The adjacent Doboy Sound was full of local residents who came by boat to participate in this special event.

The construction team consisted of the following dedicated individuals:
David Freedman, Chief Engineer, Georgia DNR
Charles Williams, Project Engineer, Georgia DNR
Buddy Sullivan, Manager, Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve
Kenneth Smith, Architect
Worth Contracting, General Contractor
Alex Klahm, Metal Restoration
Cullen Chambers, Lighthouse Consultant


The final contract amount was $494,838. Construction funds were provided by the Georgia DOT ($176,000), the Georgia General Assembly ($100,000), and the balance was obtained from private donations to the Sapelo Island Restoration Foundation. The light currently functions as a private aid to navigation. The lighthouse restoration has been featured in many local and regional newspapers, radio and television shows and was also included in the recent PBS Legendary Lighthouse Series.

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The before (at right) and after (left) renderings of the lighthouse.
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