Ask McGehee

Since one fall day in 1973, Alabama’s only coastal lighthouse has stood forlornly alone on Sand Island.

The first lighthouse here was originally built in 1838 to mark the approach into Mobile Bay. The 55-foot light tower was placed on Sand Island, which at the time consisted of nearly 400 acres. Two decades later, a replacement was built using stone and brick, but with the advent of the Civil War, its height proved far too attractive for Yankee spies who used it to monitor Confederate troop and ship movements. On a quiet night in 1863, a group of Confederates slipped onto the island and toppled the structure with a well placed load of gunpowder.

A wooden structure was installed in 1864 but was replaced in 1871 by the current 132-foot brick lighthouse, which was constructed on the foundation of the earlier building. Soon after the completion of the lighthouse, an adjoining “keeper’s dwelling” was built. Kerosene had replaced other fuels for lighting by the 1870s, and the island required a full-time employee to keep that light burning.

Washing Away

Sand Island has been battling erosion since the beginning. By 1882, the 400-acre island had dwindled down to nothing, leaving the lighthouse and dwelling surrounded by water. That’s when the current pile of stone “riprap” began arriving to help forestall the inevitable. By the 1890s, the keeper’s dwelling had to be raised; even that did not help a decade later when the 1906 hurricane roared in. The storm knocked the house from its foundation and drowned the unfortunate keeper and his wife.

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When the next dwelling was built, it was raised substantially higher and a stairway from the house to the tower’s entrance was added. Photographs indicate the little island also held a boathouse. Generators soon replaced the tanks of kerosene, and eventually, the electric light from the top could be seen 17 miles away. 

After World War II, improvements in generators made the need for a full-time lighthouse tender unnecessary, and the keeper’s residence was abandoned in 1947. A painting crew moved into the house in 1953 while they covered the exterior of the tower in black paint in an effort to make it stand out against the horizon in the daylight. When the ancient refrigerator failed, their provisions spoiled and the group was forced to hail a passing sailboat for assistance.       

Lights Out

In 1966, one of the 10 brightest lights in the world was installed at Fort Morgan to mark the entrance to the Bay, and Sand Island Light was decommissioned. In 1972, the light went out on Sand Island forever. The lamp was taken away and put on display at Fort Morgan. 

The September 28, 1973, the Mobile Register carried a small article noting that Coast Guard officials were investigating an early morning fire which had destroyed the lightkeeper’s house on Sand Island. Only the steel supports remained, and just who or what caused the fire remains a mystery.

The decades since have not been kind. The black paint is long gone from its exterior, and bricks were brought in to seal up the entrance to the tower where its spiral iron staircase is corroding to dust. The Alabama Historical Commission added it to its list of Places in Peril in 1998, and although attempts to replenish the eroded sand have been made, nature’s force continues.

Text by Tom McGehee

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