Guiding Light

On a clear day, it can be spotted from the Fairhope Municipal Pier, a little geometrical oddity standing on the horizon, looking for all the world like a hexagonal-shaped Monopoly game house. Of the many seamarks associated with the Alabama coast, Middle Bay Lighthouse is one of the most distinctive and beloved – an icon oft-depicted by Bay-area chambers of commerce, artists and business owners. Originally set down 130 years ago, it has survived uncountable hurricanes and other storms, acts of vandalism, boat collisions, changes in technology, and a recent hotly debated attempt to move it onto land in order to better protect and maintain it. Fully and beautifully restored in 2010, it is now getting another much-needed paint job, and the possibility of a future relocation remains open. While opinions are still divided, everyone agrees on the importance of this historic resource smack-dab in the middle of Mobile Bay.

The Making of a Legend

For much of the 19th century, vessels navigating the Mobile Ship Channel depended upon a primitive system of stakes, pilings and coppered barrels to mark their course up to the city wharves. During foul weather or fog, ships either took the chance of running aground or they waited, costing valuable time and money. When the channel was dredged to 17 feet in the 1880s, allowing even bigger ships into the Bay, a better way to guide vessels became imperative. It was decided to place a lighthouse alongside a pronounced bend in the channel, alerting vessels to the need to slightly alter course. 

Because of high labor costs in the South, the lighthouse was constructed up north and then shipped to Fort Morgan. Its design was of the Chesapeake Bay screw-pile style – a hexagonal wooden structure that looked more like a cottage, with its white clapboards, green shutters and walk-around gallery, than a sophisticated navigational tool. The lighthouse was floated up to the site where a temporary work platform had been erected. It was affixed to seven legs – one at each corner and a central pillar – screwed deep into the Bay floor. After the structure was placed atop, it sank 7 feet further before settling to virtually level. Equipped with a fog bell and a powerful fourth-order Fresnel lens that flashed white and red, Middle Bay Lighthouse was finally ready for service in 1885. 

Keeper of the Light

A lighthouse was only as good as its keeper, of course, and an isolated life out on the water could be difficult for all but the stoutest constitutions. Nonetheless, the men who lived at Middle Bay Lighthouse had several advantages over their colleagues on harsher coasts. Town wasn’t far away, and the sheltered waters of Mobile Bay were not as storm-tossed as those on open roadsteads. In the WWI years, Middle Bay’s keeper enjoyed the presence of his wife, and the cottage style of the lighthouse allowed them a degree of comfortable domesticity. When the couple had a baby and the mother was unable to nurse, the keeper built a corral on the gallery and brought in a milk cow.

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The Modern Era

By the 1930s, the light was electrified, and a resident keeper was no longer needed. Thereafter, the lighthouse suffered from a lack of maintenance, and in 1967 it was officially decommissioned. The U.S. Coast Guard recommended the structure’s demolition and replacement with a buoy. Locals objected, but its salvation was assured when the Mobile Bar Pilots proved that the lighthouse was more easily visible on ships’ radar than the modern buoys. Seven years later, the lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and not long after, ownership was transferred to the Alabama Historical Commission. During Middle Bay’s centennial in 1985, significant restoration work was completed, with new decking, windows and doors, and a fresh coat of paint, all to the applause of pleasure boaters who thronged the lighthouse for the rededication.

In 2004, Hurricane Ivan damaged the roof, and continued deterioration and weathering led to the fierce 2008 debate on whether the lighthouse should be moved onto dry land at Battleship Memorial Park. The Alabama Lighthouse Association (ALA), formed eight years earlier to advocate for the state’s historic navigational beacons, presented serious arguments in support of the move. After much discussion and public comment, the Alabama Historical Commission voted to keep it in place but to undertake another major overhaul. The restoration work, begun in 2010 and costing a hefty $270, 000, included structural repairs, new stainless-steel tie rods above water to help hold everything together, new windows and a coat of linseed oil-based paint. After the work was completed, Bill Lees, president of ALA, told the Alabama Media Group, “Everything is shining, (and) the paint looks good.”   

Spiffy or not, Middle Bay Lighthouse remains vulnerable to the weather, not to mention human folly. Shortly after the 2010 restoration, vandals kicked out an entire window, and in June 2013 a shrimp boat banged into the pilings. A witness told the Alabama Media Group he thought the boat would alter course, but it didn’t and “made a pretty good-size noise when it hit it.” The impact knocked down a deckhand before the boat backed off and chugged away. Later inspection revealed a bent piling and several broken tie-rods. Such incidents highlight the continued risks faced by a lighthouse on water. As Lees told the Alabama Media Group in a 2012 interview, “It’s been a wonderful building, but how long can it hold up in that environment?” 

For now, however, the lighthouse proudly rests at its historic location. The new coat of paint will ensure continued protection from sun and rain, and barring another major storm or further vandalism, the structure should fare well for the short term. But the Historical Commission is sobered by the ongoing maintenance costs and responsibilities, and the ALA remains vocal about moving it. No matter where the lighthouse ultimately stands, it’s clear that numerous dedicated groups and individuals will do all in their power to preserve it.

John S. Sledge is the author of “The Mobile River, ” due this June from the University of South Carolina Press.

text by John S. Sledge • photos by Kathy hicks

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