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Sand Island Light House

San Jose, CA
Decaying Light Houses
Seen As Historic Treasures

By GARRY MITCHELL Associated Press Writer
November 23, 2008

DAUPHIN ISLAND, Ala.-The Sand Island Lighthouse, a lonely sentinel from a faded era of shipping commerce in the Gulf of Mexico, has survived more than a century of hurricanes and violent waves, but its future is precarious. Like others built in the Gulf and Atlantic after the Civil War, the 126-foot circular tower whose light once guided sailors at the entrance to Mobile Bay is now in need of costly repairs.

Constructed in 1873, it sits atop a man-made mound of granite stones jutting above Gulf waters-Sand Island literally has been washed away from it.

Contractors work on Sand Island Light
A longitudinal crack
is shown in
Sand Island
Lighthouse - AP
Register, Mike
It is cracked and decaying and erosion remains a threat, but it is regarded by preservationists as a historic treasure. Three miles out from Dauphin Island, it is envisioned as a potential tourist attraction, like many others around the country. Engineers marvel at its design.

The Sand Island Lighthouse is a "testament to 19th Century engineering and construction," which allows the tower to sway a little in stormy winds, said masonry expert Michael Davidson of the Mississippi Stone Guild in Eupora, Miss.

"It has not only survived the Katrina of this century, but Katrinas of the last centuries," Davidson said. "Had they used modern materials and methods it would not be standing."

Others around the Gulf and Atlantic were not so lucky. Louisiana's small Chandeleur Island Lighthouse was toppled by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Searchers found no trace of it after the storm.

The New Canal Lighthouse on Lake Pontchartrain, which had stood since 1890, was also demolished by Katrina. It is scheduled for reconstruction in 2009 as a museum. The Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation salvaged material from the original two-story structure to use.

In South Carolina, efforts are being made to save the Morris Island Lighthouse on Charleston Harbor. In August, workers completed a temporary dam around its foundation to hold back water as repairs continue. The lighthouse was built in 1876 and taken out of service in 1962.

Such projects underline America's love of lighthouses and the historic significance of those that remain on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, where hundreds once served as vital navigation aids before the Civil War.

Unlike the Sand Island tower, most of the roughly 600 surviving lighthouses around the country-including those on the Great Lakes and the Pacific coast-are not abandoned and many enjoy throngs of tourists, said National Park Service chief maritime historian Kevin Foster. The lighthouse at Cape Hatteras on the North Carolina coast, one of the most popular, drew some 130,000 visitors last year. (In 1999, the Cape Hatteras lighthouse was moved roughly half a mile back from the edge of the Atlantic to save it from erosion.)

"Most of them have been adaptively reused and are in use," said Foster.

After the Coast Guard, the next single biggest owner of lighthouses is the National Park Service, Foster said.

During the Civil War, Confederate troops destroyed some of the towers or took out the light to keep them out of Union hands. The lighthouse on Sand Island, which served a Gulf route protected by Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines, was among them, blown up by explosives in 1861.

Rebuilt in 1873, it remained in service until deactivated by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1933, and slowly began to deteriorate.

Sand Island Light repairs A barge and crane leave Sand
Island Lighthouse AP Photo/
Press-Register, Mike Kittrell
Jack Granade, a Mobile engineer who has worked on a plan to save the lighthouse, said it's cracked down two sides, but the foundation appears intact. Twenty-eight feet in diameter at its base, its brick walls are six feet thick near the foundation.

A long-term lighthouse restoration could cost millions of dollars, but Granade said the first step is to stabilize the tower and prevent further decay.

Davidson, the masonry expert, compared its condition to a cracked teacup. He said it can be repaired by pumping in lime grout mortar to seal the cracks. Engineers also propose installing 16 tension rings in the tower. "If nothing is done, it will fall in time," said Davidson, who specializes in historical monuments.

Foster of the Park Service said he's surprised the Sand Island tower has lasted this long without some care.

"It's alongside a channel that gets maintenance dredging and will require long-term attention. It's not one you can fix once and forget about," Foster said.

The town of Dauphin Island took ownership of the lighthouse from the federal government in 2003 in hopes of saving it and eventually turning it into a tourist attraction. FEMA provided some $720,000 in repair funds after Hurricane Ivan damaged some of the brickwork in 2004.

But lack of funds for the long-term restoration remains a challenge. Lighthouse supporters are putting together fundraising plans, including the sale of sponsorships.

Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier said improvements could include a beach area and docking for boats. Water surrounding the lighthouse is about 20 feet deep.

"We'll be looking at doing some work to shore up the tower itself," he said.

Eight flights of spiral iron stairs provide access from the ground floor to the watch room where the light was once located. The light was removed and remains stored at nearby Fort Morgan.

"You could see it for 28 miles on a clear night," said Granade.

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