LIGHTHOUSE OF THE WEEK – Sapelo Island Lighthouse, Georgia
Historical content courtesy of Lighthouse Friends
Located five miles off the Georgia mainland, Sapelo Island truly has a rich history. Before Thomas Spalding acquired much of the island in 1802, Sapelo had been home to Spanish missionaries, and French and English settlers. Spalding established a productive plantation on the island, growing sea-island cotton, sugar cane, and rice with the help of roughly 400 slaves.
For a token sum of one dollar, Spalding sold five acres at the southern end of the island in 1816 for the construction of a lighthouse. Winslow Lewis of Boston was contracted on September 14, 1819 to build the brick tower and accompanying dwelling. Lewis also provided the light source: fifteen of his fifteen-inch reflectors and lamps, fitted on a triangular revolving iron frame. When Sapelo Island Lighthouse was activated in 1820, it served as a guide for mariners transiting Doboy Sound to and from the Port of Darien. Located at the mouth of the Altamaha River, Georgia’s largest coastal river, Darien was a natural collecting point for lumber and crops produced in the interior.
In the 1850s, most of America’s lighthouses were upgraded with a more efficient lighting apparatus, the Fresnel lens. Sapelo Lighthouse received a revolving fourth-order Fresnel lens in 1854 that changed the characteristic of the light to fixed white, punctuated every forty seconds by a flash. Four years previously, the tower had been given its distinctive daymark of red and white horizontal bands to help mariners more easily identify it during daylight hours. Prior to the installation of the Fresnel lens with its single lamp, the lighting apparatus in Sapelo Island Lighthouse consumed roughly 540 gallons of oil annually, or thirty-six gallons in each of its fifteen lamps.
In 1855, the Lighthouse Board requested $1,500 for a beacon light on the southern point of Sapelo Island, where it would form a range with Sapelo Lighthouse to assist mariners in locating the proper channel for entering Doboy Sound. Congress supplied the requested amount on August 18, 1856, and the beacon, which exhibited a fixed white light using a fifth-order Fresnel lens, was placed in operation in 1857. Mariners were told to “bring the beacon in range with the main light, and run for them until the outer or east beacon on Wolf island” was at a specific bearing.
Confederate forces removed the lens from Sapelo Island Lighthouse before the Union Army occupied the island in 1862. Spalding had constructed a plantation mansion called South End House on the island in 1809. Although Thomas Spalding passed away in 1851, his son continued to live in the mansion until being forced to flee to the mainland by the advancing Union troops.
Banner Image: Sapelo Island Lighthouse. Image Credit – National Lighthouse Museum