Visit Tybee Island Lighthouse in Tybee Island Georgia
Ordered by General James Oglethorpe, Governor of the 13th colony, in 1732, the Tybee Island Light Station has been guiding mariners safe entrance into the Savannah River for over 270 years.
The Tybee Island Light Station is one of America's most intact having all of its historic support buildings on its five-acre site. It was prepared as a relay warning of the British during the war of 1812. The American Revolution, The War Between the States, World War 1, and World War 2. Today the Tybee Island lighthouse stands at a hundred and fifty-four feet, and has recently undergone extensive renovation.
Visitors can climb 178 steps to the top of America's third oldest, and Georgia's lighthouse that is still working today. Enjoy a spectacular view of the entire island! The original Tybee Island lighthouse was built in 1736. At 90 foot high, it was the tallest structure of its kind in America.
Under the direction of Noble Jones of Wormsloe Plantation, work began on the first lighthouse built on Tybee. It was constructed in 1736. It was octagonal in shape and was constructed of brickwork and cedar piles. Standing ninety feet tall, it was the tallest structure of its kind in America at that time.
In 1733, General James Ogelthorpe founded the colony of Georgia and established the town of Savannah, seventeen miles upstream from where the Savannah River meets the open Atlantic Ocean. Early on, Ogelthorpe realized the importance of a marker on Tybee Island at the mouth of the river and ordered a 90-foot, wooden structure be erected there. After construction on the tower had started, Ogelthorpe became upset at the lack of progress being made and jailed the head carpenter, threatening to hang him. The carpenter's crew pled for his life, promising they could complete the tower in five more weeks. During the next sixteen days, they accomplished more than they had in the previous sixteen months. Apparently, government contractors earned their reputation centuries ago. The tower, used as a daymark for vessels entering the river, was completed in 1736.
Unfortunately, the tower collapsed during a storm in 1741, but a replacement tower was already in place the following year. The new structure, built of stone and wood by Thomas Sumner, was 94-feet-tall and topped with a 30-foot flagpole. The encroaching sea cut short the life of the second tower, and a third tower was erected farther from the shoreline in 1773. The all-white structure displayed its fixed white light for the first time on October 1, 1867.
The third tower rose to a height of 100 feet, was constructed of brick with wooden stairs and landings, and makes up the bottom section of the current Tybee Island Lighthouse. After Georgia ratified the Constitution in 1790, the tower was ceded to the federal government. For the first time, the tower was outfitted with an official lamp. Candles with reflectors were first used atop the tower before being upgraded to whale oil lamps.
A fifty-foot tower was built seaward of the lighthouse in 1822, and an array of lamps in the shorter tower paired with those in the main tower functioned as a range light. As American lighthouses adopted the use of Fresnel lenses, the Tybee Lighthouse received a second-order lens in 1857, while the front light was given a fourth-order lens. Now, instead of having to tend multiple lamps, the keepers were responsible for just a single lamp in each tower. The efficient Fresnel lens, with the single lamp at its center, greatly increased the range of the lights.
In 1861 during the War Between the States, the Confederate forces abandoned Tybee Island for the safer confines of Fort Pulaski on Cockspur Island, roughly two miles upriver. Before retreating, the troops set fire to the lighthouse, burning the wooden stairs and landings. Union soldiers occupied Tybee Island and bombarded Fort Pulaski with newly developed rifled Parrot guns, prompting the surrender of the fort in just thirty hours.
In 1866, after the end of the war, a reconstruction crew began work on the lighthouse. Work was progressing well until federal troops arrived on the island bringing with them cholera. The foreman and four workers died from the disease, prompting the remaining workers to flee the site. A replacement crew was brought in to complete the work. Only the bottom sixty feet of the 1773 tower was salvageable, and on this base an additional 94 feet of tower was added, bringing the total height to 154 feet. A new, fireproof cast-iron staircase with 178 treads formed the spine of the lighthouse.
In 1886, an earthquake, a rare occurrence for the east coast, struck the area. The annual report of the Lighthouse Board for 1887 summarized the damage to the Tybee Island Lighthouse:
The earthquake of last August extended the cracks that have been observed in this tower for several years and made some new ones, but not to any dangerous extent. The lens was displaced and the attachments to its upper ring were broken. The damage was repaired without delay. The entrance for which the Tybee lights made a range … is gradually moving to the southward and in January last it became necessary to move the front beacon 98 feet in that direction.
Electricity reached the lighthouse in 1933, replacing kerosene as the light source. The staff at the lighthouse was reduced to just one keeper, George Jackson, who served until his death in 1947. The Coast Guard, who took control of the tower in 1939, occupied the station buildings until 1987, when they moved to a modern facility on Cockspur Island. The lighthouse is still active, illuminating the skies above Tybee Island nightly with its first-order lens.
In 1998, the Tybee Island Lighthouse underwent a major restoration. The Tybee Island Historical Society had spent twelve years raising the nearly half a million dollars needed for the project. International Chimney Corporation of Buffalo, NY served as general contractor, and Scottish masons, Irish painters, and local craftsmen were recruited to work on the lighthouse. From 1970 through 1998, the top half of the lighthouse was black and the bottom portion was white. When the lighthouse was painted as part of the restoration, the top and bottom portions of the lighthouse were painted black and the middle section white. The lighthouse had sported this particular daymark for more time than any other (from 1916 to 1964).
The tireless efforts of the Tybee Island Historical Society were rewarded in 2002 when they received ownership of the station under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act. The lighthouse was one of the first to be transferred under the act. Visitors to the Tybee Island Lighthouse today are treated to one of America's most intact and historic light stations. The five-acre site is home to the lighthouse, a head keeper's house built in 1881, a first assistant's house built in 1885, a second assistant's house built in 1861, a summer kitchen built in 1812, an oil house built in 1890 to house the volatile kerosene fuel, and a garage built in the 1930s.
Following the renovation of the lighthouse in 1998-99, the head keeper's house was restored in 2000-01, the first assistant's dwelling was removated in 2003-04, and from 2005-08 attention was placed on the second assistant's house, which was converted into a lecture hall, art gallery and audio-visual space. The Tybee Island Light Station is certainly one of the most complete and well-maintained stations in the United States.