Shining their beacon on sea-weary Southerners, welcoming them home after their time away, these Southern lighthouses have been guiding the way through treacherous waters for centuries. Their lights still shine on, a beacon of hope, rest and security on the high Southern seas.
- St. Augustine Light—FloridaStanding at 165 feet above sea level, the lighthouse’s 219 winding steps lead to the first-order Fresnel lens (photo courtesy of S.W. Clyde)
It just makes sense to begin our tour of Southern lighthouses with one as historic as the city it shines from. Before the current lighthouse was constructed, a Spanish watchtower built in the 1500’s stood guard over the nation’s oldest port. While it’s suspected that some of these watchtowers were lit much earlier, the “Old Spanish Watchtower” wasn’t officially lit until May of 1824.
Nearly fifty years later, shoreline erosion had played its part in the fate of the watchtower, and the new St. Augustine Light began its three-year journey from building to operation. The project was complete in 1874, with the installation of the hand-blown Fresnel lens from Paris, France. The lens consisting of 370 hand-cut prisms arranged in the shape of a beehive, was the showpiece of the lighthouse, lit in October 1874. Just six short years later the “Old Spanish Watchtower” bowed to years of erosion during a storm in 1880, collapsing into the waters it had protected for so long.
The St. Augustine Light rises 165 feet above sea level. Up the 219 steps of the lighthouse, the first-order Fresnel light still shines over the water, and although it is now lit by a 1,000-watt bulb, it is one of the few remaining operating first-order Fresnel lenses in the United States. Adding to its list of historical feats, the lighthouse is also Florida’s oldest surviving brick structure.
- Tybee Island Light—GeorgiaThree different lighthouses have held the title of Tybee Island Lighthouse before the fourth and current lighthouse was built following the Civil War. Confederate troops burned the third lighthouse, fearing it would aid Union ships.The original Tybee Island Lighthouse was commissioned in 1732 by General James Oglethorpe to guide ships safely through Georgia’s coastal waters and into the Savannah River. Constructed in 1736, the brick-and-cedar piles lighthouse stood ninety feet tall, making it the tallest lighthouse of its structure at the time in America. But sadly, the reign of the original Tybee Island lighthouse was short-lived. The light’s close proximity to the water made it susceptible to storms and weakened its foundation. In August 1741 the lighthouse was washed away in a storm, but the light wasn’t out for long.
Having already begun construction on a second lighthouse, the replacement for the original lighthouse was completed the following year. But not much more thought was put into the lighthouse’s distance from the water, and once again as the shoreline eroded it was in distress much as its predecessor had been. Before it would succumb to the sea once again, the third Tybee Island Lighthouse was placed farther inland and completed in 1773. Stronger than its predecessors, it seemed it would stand the test of sea and time—but not war. In 1862, Confederate troops from Fort Pulaski, fearing the lighthouse would guide Union ships into their port, set fire to the lighthouse destroying the light.
Following the Civil War, the fourth and current Tybee Island Lighthouse was more of a restoration project rather than building a new Light. Working with what remained of the burned lighthouse, the construction of the new light was fireproof, made of brick and metal, and a new first-order Fresnel lens was ordered. Today the Lighthouse is automated and still lights the way for ships entering the Savannah River. The five-acre station, which includes all of the support buildings including the Head Keeper’s cottage, is the most intact light stations in the country.
- Cape Hatteras Lighthouse—North Carolina The base of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. In 1999, the lighthouse was moved 2,900 feet inland to protect it from beach erosion. (Photo courtesy of Mark A. Neal)The Cape Hatteras National Seashore is home to three lighthouses: Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Bodie Island Lighthouse, and Ocracoke Lighthouse. These beacons aid ships through one of the most dangerous areas along the Atlantic Coast.
The need for a lighthouse at Cape Hatteras was evident when it was commissioned in 1794. The first lighthouse took nine years to plan and build, but it was finally completed and lit in October 1803. Despite the best laid plans for the lighthouse, the mere height of ninety feet and a sandstone color made it hardly visible from the sea. Despite complaints, it took another fifty years for an additional sixty feet to be added to the original lighthouse. The plain facade was given a daymark (to make it distinct in the daytime) with the upper addition being painted red. But despite the changes, the lighthouse was weak and needed to be replaced.
The new Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was lit December 1870. Two years later it was painted with the widely recognized black-and-white-stripe daymark. Now the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States, it towers above Cape Hatteras standing at 198 feet. But like many lighthouses, beach erosion weakened its base threatening to lure the lighthouse into the sea. For the first time, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1935. It wasn’t lit again until 1950, after much beach restoration effort.
The storms that hit the coast continued to erode the beaches throughout the Outer Banks. The decision was made to keep the current lighthouse, but move it further inland. Over the course of twenty-three days in 1999, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was moved 2,900 feet. The supporting buildings were moved with it, and once again the lighthouse was able to safely guide seafarers home without fear of destruction for ship or light.
- Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse—Maryland The cottage-style screw-pile lighthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, an honor only bestowed upon nine lighthouses in the United States
One of the most interesting and recognized lighthouses in the Chesapeake Bay, the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975—an honor given to a mere nine lighthouses nationwide.
The original light was built in 1825, as a small thirty-foot land tower to warn sailors of the shoal (a shallow part of the water), roughly 100 feet from the shore. But Mother Nature moved the shoreline closer, and within thirteen years the lighthouse was within fifteen feet of the water. So in 1840, plans were made to move and rebuild the tower behind the keeper’s house using materials from the original. But just a few decades later the Lighthouse Board realized a problem they had from the beginning. The shore-based tower wasn’t working, and they would need to replace it once again.
The solution was a cottage-style screw-pile lighthouse—on the shoal itself. The Chesapeake Bay has seen four such lighthouses, but the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse is the only one remaining in its original location. The others have been moved to museum locations, tourist attractions no longer needed. The support to keep this location and light can be traced back to the people of Maryland. When the Coast Guard made plans to automate the light and dismantle the cottage, the public quickly spoke up in defense of its favorite lighthouse. But in 1986, the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse was the last lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay to be automated. It was named a National Historic Landmark in 1999.
SEE MORE LIGHTHOUSES OF THE SOUTH IMAGES HERE