Sapelo Island Lighthouse | Darien, Georgia
Handsome Sapelo Island Lighthouse is one of Georgia's five lighthouses still in existence, and one of three open to the general public. The striking red and white stripes on this nearly 200-year-old lighthouse make it a dramatic landmark on the southern end of Sapelo Island. It is the nation's second-oldest brick lighthouse and the oldest survivor of Winslow Lewis lighthouse projects.
Abandoned for 93 years, restoration of the lighthouse became a goal of the Department of Natural Resources, which eventually led an 8-month, $490,000 effort to repair and preserve the lighthouse. It was undertaken in 1998, resulting in a new spiral staircase, restoration of the brick and stucco exterior, a fresh coat of red and white paint, and a new electric beacon to signal boaters 12 miles offshore. The lighthouse complex includes the remains of a brick oil house and a cistern. Roughly 600 feet east of the main tower is an iron range beacon built in 1877. Visitors interested in touring the lighthouse must book a ride on the Sapelo Island Ferry, which includes a guided tour.
The lighthouse's history began in 1808, when Thomas Spalding sold 5 acres of land on Sapelo's south end for $1 to the U.S. Government to build a lighthouse to help guide shipping into the growing port of Darien. An 80-foot tower was completed in 1820, built by Winslow Lewis of Boston, at a cost of $14,500. The 65-foot, round brick tower, with a 25-foot diameter base tapering to 12 feet, was topped by an iron lantern containing reflectors lit with whale oil. Seventy-nine cypress steps spiraled the interior of the tower to the cupola.
Several keepers served at the lighthouse during the antebellum years. The lighthouse was ravaged by a hurricane in 1824, but was not put back into operation until 1854, when it was upgraded with a fourth order Fresnel lens. When Confederate forces abandoned the island in 1862, they removed this lens as part of a strategy to hinder the Union blockade. From 1862-1865, Union forces used the lighthouse as an observation post during their blockade of Sapelo, Doboy, and Altamaha sounds.
After the Civil War, the lighthouse was repaired and reactivated by the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1868, and the signature red and white daymark was painted on the exterior.
In 1873, Irishman James Cromley was appointed head keeper of Sapelo Light, which started a 60-year tradition of Cromleys in charge of lighthouse operations on the island. The hurricane and "tidal wave" of 1898 put much of the island under water, and severely damaged the lighthouse's foundation. Cromley's son William was keeper of the lighthouse during the hurricane and was saved by "a colored man" who tied the unconscious keeper to a boat. (His brother, James, was keeper of Wolf Beacon Light.)
A new lighthouse was ordered and in 1905, a 100-foot steel pyramid tower was built a few hundred feet north of the brick tower, taking over navigational responsibilities from the 1820 tower. The steel tower was deactivated in 1933 due to a decline of shipping in Darien, and the tower was dismantled and shipped to South Fox Island in Lake Michigan in 1934. The support buildings were also taken down. Located nearby, however, are the concrete foundations of a U.S. Army artillery emplacement constructed in 1898 as part of the coastal defense system during the Spanish-American War.