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Tybee Island Light Station

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1773 lighthouse, John Mulryne, builder; 19th century additions; 1998–2005 restoration. 30 Meddin Dr. at Fort Screven.
  • Headkeeper's House
  • First Assistant Keeper's House and Oil Storage

“From Rabun Gap to Tybee Light” is a phrase popular among Georgia orators. It describes the considerable length of the state, the country’s largest east of the Mississippi. Rabun Gap is a natural land formation whileTybee Light is an historic man-made landmark. One of the earliest structures in Georgia, it was built by the colony’s founder, James Oglethorpe, to mark the entrance to the Savannah River and to warn ships of the shallow coastal waters at Tybee Island. The current edifice is the fourth in a series of “daymarks” and lighthouses erected here.

Oglethorpe’s first landmark was built of wood in 1733, just three years after the colony was founded. It towered to a height of 90 feet and was the tallest structure of its kind in America at the time. Standing too close to the shore, it was constantly threatened by beach erosion and was finally washed away in a storm in 1741. By then, a second tower had already been started but it was also too close to the water. In 1773, work began on a third tower, this time in brick and set back far enough to avoid beach erosion. That tower rose to a height of 100 feet and had wood stairs and landings inside. Today it serves as the base of the current tower. The lighthouse required a keeper on site to tend to the beacon, which was at first lit by large candles, then by sixteen lamps burning whale oil at first, then hot lard, and finally, kerosene. In 1857 a second order Fresnel Lens (measuring eight feet tall) was installed, a French invention of 1827 that employed molded glass prisms in a brass frame to magnify the light source.

In 1861 Confederate troops at nearby Fort Pulaski burned the interior stairs of the tower to prevent use of the lighthouse by federal troops. When Union soldiers, intending to attack Fort Pulaski, arrived on Tybee Island they quickly repaired the stairs. A dynamite explosion late in 1862 destroyed the upper section of the Tybee Lighthouse. Between 1866 and 1867 a new tower was built in brick, adding eighty-five feet to the sixty-foot base of the 1773 tower, and replacing the wooden stairs with a cast-iron staircase. A new first order Fresnel lens (measuring nine feet tall) was installed in 1867, its light visible to ships eighteen miles off the coast.

The station required a series of support buildings over the years. The extant 1812 summer kitchen is one of the earliest surviving structures in Georgia and became a storage building when kitchens were later attached to keepers’ quarters in 1910. During the Civil War, a small barracks building was built for Confederate troops and was later adapted as the second assistant keeper’s house in 1867. A small building was erected at the base of the lighthouse that same year to store and heat lard (and later oil) for the light. For use in the lamps during the years before kerosene, keepers had to haul buckets of warm lard to the top and keep it from congealing. In 1881 the Head Keeper’s House was built in the prevailing Stick Style, a frame construction that employed stick-like brackets, posts, and other trim, including horizontal and vertical wall weave surfaces to express the wood-frame character of the structure. The first assistant keeper’s house dates to 1885, the year an earlier residence on the same site burned. This was also the year a major hurricane crossed Tybee Island, and throughout much of the later nineteenth century, cracks in the masonry and other needed repairs prompted repeated calls for a new lighthouse. In 1886, the tower survived a large Charleston earthquake, convincing Congress that a new lighthouse was not yet necessary. A brick fuel storage with concrete floor and tin roof was erected in 1890 as a more appropriate building to house kerosene. Before the end of the century, a picket fence was installed around the station buildings in 1894, and construction on Fort Screven began in 1897 with the building of the Battery Brumby, a sign that the Spanish American War was likely imminent.

After the stock market crash of 1929, economizing measures prompted the 1933 transition to electricity to light the Tybee Island lighthouse lamp. Oddly enough, even as pressure was mounting to eliminate the need for on-site lighthouse keepers, a three-car garage was also built during the 1930s. In 1939 the United States Coast Guard took over operation of the lighthouse and maintained it until 1987, when the Guard vacated Tybee for new quarters on Cockspur Island. The Tybee Island Historical Society then developed the site as a museum and continues to operate Tybee Island Lighthouse.

Throughout the last century and a half, the daymarking of the lighthouse has changed with repeated repainting. In 1867 the entire lighthouse was white; between 1887 and 1965 the base of the tower up to about sixty feet was black, the top was also black, and the middle was painted white. Dimensions of this black-white-black design varied: from 1887 to 1914 the white extended above the sixty-foot black base to the gallery walk; from 1914 to about 1916–1917 this middle white section stopped about ten feet below the gallery walk; and between 1917 and 1965 it rose from the same sixty-foot black base to about twenty feet below the gallery walk, which is its current configuration since the restoration of 1998–1999. For about five years after 1965, the lower fifty feet was painted white and the remainder of the tower (to the gallery walk) was a dull gray; then in 1970, lasting twenty-eight years until the recent renovations, the full tower above the fifty-foot level was black, and below remained white. The 1916–1965 design was reinstated in 1998 as the design of longest duration.

In 2002, in the midst of renovations of the houses, ownership of the Tybee Island Light Station was transferred to the Tybee Island Historical Society under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act. The historical society restored the Head Keeper’s house (2000–2001), the First Assistant Keeper’s house (2003–2004), and in 2005 the Second Assistant Keeper’s house was converted to a lecture hall, art gallery, and audio-visual space.

References

Godley, Margaret. Historic Tybee Island. Savannah: Savannah Beach Chamber of Commerce, 1988 (first published 1958).

Chambers, Cullen G. A Brief History of the Tybee Island Light Station.Tybee Island: Tybee Island Historical Society, 1999.

Kagerer, Rudy. A Guidebook to Lighthouses in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida’s East Coast: Their History, Legends, Tales, and Whereabouts. Athens, GA: Lighthouse Enterprises, Inc., 1998 (revision of 1996 edition).

Writing Credits

Author: 
Robert M. Craig
Coordinator: 
Robert M. Craig
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Data

Timeline

  • 1736

    First octagonal wood beacon (a “daymark” with no light) built (90 feet tall with 25-foot base) on site for James Oglethorpe
  • 1741

    Second tower built (wood with exterior weather boarding) 94 feet with 30 foot flagpole on top (124 feet total)
  • 1757

    House for pilot erected and second lighthouse repaired
  • 1773

    Third lighthouse tower built of brick [base of current lighthouse].
  • 1791

    “Light” introduced to lighthouse (heretofore, a “day mark” tower without night light); lit with spermaceti candles (whale oil lamps) in 1791; lard and kerosene during early 19th century.
  • 1812

    Original summer kitchen built; used as storage room after 1910
  • 1857

    First order (eight foot) Fresnel lens installed
  • 1861

    Confederate barracks (second assistant keeper’s house 1867 on) built
  • 1862

    Upper section of lighthouse damaged by dynamite explosion during Civil War
  • 1866

    Lighthouse rebuilt to height of 145 feet [154 feet above sea level] using 60 foot base of 1773 light tower as foundation; first order Fresnel lens (nine feet tall) installed Oct ‘67; Confederate barracks assigned to be Second Assistant Keeper residence; lard oil storage and heating building built at base of lighthouse
  • 1867

    Lighthouse painted all white
  • 1881

    Head Keeper’s house built
  • 1885

    First Assistant Keeper’s House burned and rebuilt on same site; major hurricane strikes Tybee
  • 1887

    Lighthouse painted in black on bottom up to about 60 feet, and black on topmost 34 feet, and white in middle approx. 60 feet
  • 1890

    Brick fuel storage building built with concrete floor and tin roof for kerosene, now used for lamps
  • 1894

    Second Assistant Keepers house renovated; picket fence installed around station
  • 1897

    Construction on Fort Screven begins with building of Battery Brumby
  • 1909

    Asbestos shingles replace cedar shakes on support building roofs
  • 1910

    Attached summer kitchens added to three lightkeepers houses; original summer kitchen converted to storage.
  • 1914

    Lighthouse painted in black on bottom 60 feet and topmost 35 feet and white in middle 50 feet
  • 1916

    Lighthouse painted in black on bottom to same height of approx. 60 feet and black on topmost approx. 45 feet, and white in middle approx. 40 feet
  • 1933

    Lighthouse activates first electric light instead of kerosene in economic move to remove need for light keepers; United States Lighthouse Service disbanded position of assistant keeper; first and second keepers’ houses used by military
  • 1930

    Three-car garage built
  • 1939

    Lighthouse Station operated by U.S. Coast Guard
  • 1965

    Lighthouse painted grey on top approx.99 feet and white on bottom 46 feet
  • 1970

    Lighthouse painted white on bottom and black on top; break at about 46 feet
  • 1987

    Coast Guard vacates Tybee Island Light Station for new quarters on Cockspur Island; Tybee Island Historical Society develops the Tybee Island Museum and operates the Lighthouse
  • 1998

    Lighthouse restored and painted black on bottom and top and white in middle, returning to 1916–1964 “daymark” design
  • 2000

    Head Keeper’s House restored
  • 2002

    Ownership of Tybee Island Light Station transferred to Tybee Island Historical Society under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act

What's Nearby

Citation

Robert M. Craig, "Tybee Island Light Station", [Tybee Island, Georgia], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/GA-01-051-0064.

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