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A Guiding Light - Sand Island LightHouse
By RUSS HENDERSON Staff Reporter
February 19, 2001

"Restoration efforts at a lighthouse in South Carolina offer lessons for how the crumbling Sand Island Lighthouse off Mobile Bay can be saved." Says Warren Lee, head of a local group dedicated to preserving the historic beacon: "If it can be done in South Carolina, we can do it here."

A virtual twin to Sand Island Lighthouse sits off the shore of Charleston, S.C. It too was built in the 1870s to replace a lighthouse destroyed during the Civil War. It also is in poor condition from decades of neglect, and the island sand that it once stood on has washed away. The big difference? South Carolina's Morris Island Lighthouse is on its way to a full restoration while Sand Island Lighthouse crumbles.

Thanks to the efforts of a private conservation organization, the state of South Carolina took possession of Charleston's Morris Island light 10 months ago, making it eligible for federal and state money, including up to $1 million in stabilization funds from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. South Carolina then turned all maintenance and insurance responsibility back over to the conservation group - Save the Light, Inc. - in the form of a 99-year lease on the lighthouse. Save the Light also has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from private donors and garnered political support resulting in a recent promise of $500,000 from the state government to restore the lighthouse.

The future for Sand Island Lighthouse - located just south of the mouth of Mobile Bay - looks far grimmer. Last month, the Alabama Historical Commission rejected a federal offer of the Sand Island property, claiming a full restoration would require $10 million. That high price tag, though it wasn't based on a professional cost estimate, led to doubts that anyone would be able to restore it. And if a new owner isn't eventually found, the federal government will dynamite Sand Island Lighthouse into the Gulf.

But the final chapter of Sand Island Lighthouse's long history isn't written yet, said Warren Lee, head of the local Sand Island Lighthouse Preservation Group. Alabama will not be outdone by South Carolina in civic pride, he said. "If it can be done in South Carolina, we can do it here," Lee said. "Whatever they've done, we can learn from it." Castles made of sand Sand loss is a common and dangerous problem among water-bound lighthouses, causing foundations to give way and walls to crack, Lee said.

Some say that, if something isn't done to ballast the little sand left under Sand Island and Morris Island lighthouses, both will eventually fall into the sea. Such a catastrophe isn't unprecedented. Delaware's Cape Henlopen light collapsed in 1926 after the sea sucked away the dune where it was built.

The "Three Sisters of Nauset," three brick lighthouses built in the waters off Cape Cod in 1839, fell into the sea by 1892. Both the Morris and Sand Island lighthouses have been surrounded for about 100 years by water and ocean waves, pounding at the sand around their pilings. In the late 1800s, jetties designed to deepen the ship channel into Charleston Harbor accidentally washed away part of Morris Island, leaving the lighthouse stranded. The lighthouse is now 1,600 feet from Morris Island's shore and is submerged up to its foundation.

Sand Island eroded from 400 acres in the 1860s to less than an acre in the 1890s, and was finally blown from the ocean surface by a hurricane in 1906, leaving the lighthouse standing on its stone pilings alone.

Sand Island was an intermittent feature of the Gulf for thousands of years - appearing and disappearing with the tides and with storms. But no more, said Scott Douglass, a coastal engineer with the University of South Alabama. The Mobile Ship Channel, a Corps of Engineers project that passes just a few hundred yards from Sand Island Lighthouse, robs thousands of tons of sand a year from the area's natural sand-delivery system, destroying the possibility that Sand Island will build up above the Gulf's surface again, Douglass said. If the lighthouse's stability has been compromised, the ship channel is likely responsible, Douglass said.

The Alabama Historical Commission claims Sand Island Lighthouse has only 10 years of life remaining because of the erosion under its foundation, though no scientific study has been done to support such a claim. The Corps of Engineers has done no study on the stability of the lighthouse or the effect Mobile Ship Channel has had on it.

The historical commission recently had Volkert & Associates do a feasibility and cost-estimate study of Sand Island Lighthouse, but the study stopped short of studying the tower's foundation and the pilings and sand below. The historical commission's director, Lee Warner, said underwater topographical and soil-sample studies would have cost more than $100,000 - more than the commission was willing to spend on the prospective property. The commission's $10 million restoration estimate is four times the $2.5 million figure Volkert & Associates gave the historical commission last month.

"Sure, Volkert's estimate was only for restoration work from the lighthouse's foundation to its top, but claiming that stabilizing the lighthouse would cost $7.5 million is ridiculous," Lee said. According to estimates he's personally solicited from local contractors, Lee claims he could stabilize Sand Island Lighthouse with $300,000.

By contrast, restoring and stabilizing Morris Island Lighthouse will cost about $5 million, said Doug Bostick, chairman of Save the Light. A study of the sand loss under Morris Island Lighthouse was done last year - funded by about $35,000 from the Corps of Engineers. The data from that study will help the Morris Island Lighthouse to compete with hundreds of other projects nationally for $1 million in stabilization funds, said Mark Nelson, chief of the design department of the Charleston Corps of Engineers branch.

Through a federal flood-control law, the Corps can spend up to $1 million on a single project to stabilize banklines where a public service is threatened by erosion, Nelson said. The legislation was originally intended to prevent damage to highways, bridges, schools and churches, Nelson said, but lighthouses qualify for the funding. Even lighthouses that aren't working anymore, he said.

Corps cannot help Sand Island Sand Island Lighthouse doesn't qualify for help from the Corps of Engineers, said Denver Austin, southeastern division manager for the Corps of Engineers' continuing authorities program in Atlanta. The Corps can't spend money on property owned by other federal agencies, and the lighthouse is owned by the federal government's landlord, the General Services Administration, Austin said. When and if the lighthouse transfers to a non-federal entity - any state, municipality, or private owner - it will take the first step toward getting help from the Corps, Austin said. The Corps would then send a scientist to determine whether the erosion at Sand Island Lighthouse is "naturally occurring" and whether stabilization work there is necessary and useful, Austin said.

Lee's Sand Island Lighthouse Preservation Group has been working with GSA since 1997 to get the lighthouse out of federal hands. Since last month's Alabama Historical Commission rejection, Lee's group has been talking with the town of Dauphin Island about taking ownership. Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier said he will present the idea to the Town Council this month. If Dauphin Island doesn't take the lighthouse, the preservation group and GSA will seek another prospect, Lee said.

If a municipality or county won't take the lighthouse, GSA will then offer it to nonprofit organizations. If there are still no takers, GSA will sell the lighthouse at auction to the highest bidder. If there are no bidders, GSA will dynamite the lighthouse. As soon as the lighthouse leaves federal hands, Lee plans to call on the Corps of Engineers for the same help it has given Morris Island Lighthouse. "Getting stabilization money from the Corps would only be appropriate, because their ship channel has undoubtedly affected Sand Island Light's stability," Lee said.

The sailors' sentries The 130-foot-tall, dark sentinel of Sand Island Lighthouse stands below south Alabama's shoreline amid the pounding waves of the Gulf of Mexico, without an island, the mortar between its century-old bricks slowly flurrying out in the ocean wind -an unsure spindle in the wheel of Mobile's history. "It's just out there, waiting its turn to be recognized as something we need to respect, something that's part of our heritage," said Lee, staring at the dark tower from a Coast Guard cutter pushing its way out to a bumpy winter sea from Mobile Bay.

For hundreds of years, lighthouses guided sailors to safe harbor at night, protected ships from being lost in storms and served as indispensable daytime navigation markers, Lee said. As technology makes lighthouses obsolete, "it's becoming our turn to protect them," Lee said.

With that philosophy in mind, Lee occasionally hitches a ride with the Coast Guard and others to inspect it for vandalism and damage from the elements.

Historical landmark

A long history is at stake. The first lighthouse on Sand Island was a 55-foot-high tower raised in 1838 to complement the Mobile Point Light on the opposite side of Mobile Bay. The lighthouse proved too small for its task and in 1859 a 150-foot-high tower was constructed, Lee said. The tower stood only two years. In 1861, Confederate soldiers spotted Union troops using the lighthouse to spy on Fort Gaines and Fort Morgan. A crew rowed to the island at night to set the explosives which toppled the lighthouse into the sea.

The lighthouse that stands today was completed in 1872. It was decommissioned in 1967, after decades of fast erosion forced the removal of the island's dwellings. The Coast Guard initially planned to destroy Sand Island Lighthouse. But, according to literature at Fort Morgan Museum, "local protest was so vehement that the Coast Guard changed its mind." That year, ownership of the lighthouse was passed to GSA, in whose hands it has remained ever since.

Morris Island Lighthouse's history similar to Sand Island Lighthouse's, said Save the Light's Bostick. The first light on Morris Island was a ball of fire fueled by pitch and ocum lit in an iron basket, installed there by colonists in 1673. In 1767, a 42-foot tower was built. It was replaced in 1837, when the newly created federal lighthouse service funded the construction of a 102-foot structure. During the Civil War, Morris Island was at the subject of several sieges. Confederate Batteries Gregg and Wagner were on Cummings Point, north of the lighthouse. Battery Wagner was the site of the famous but ill-fated attack by the black regiment Massachusetts 54th - the battle portrayed in the Hollywood film "Glory."

The historical record is less clear about Morris Island Lighthouse's destruction than Sand Island Lighthouse's, Bostick said. But it's believed that sometime during the war, the Confederate army destroyed the lighthouse to prevent its use by Union spies, he said. "That should sound familiar," Bostick said. In 1873, work began on a replacement - the 160-foot lighthouse that still stands today. It was completed in 1876.

But in the following years, Morris Island's erosion made having a lightkeeper's dwelling nearly impossible. In 1938, the light was automated. In 1962, a new, steel-and-aluminum lighthouse was built on nearby Sullivan's Island to replace Morris Island Lighthouse. Morris Island Light was extinguished, but the structure was kept. In 1965, however, the Coast Guard announced plans to destroy Morris Island Light. The Charleston community and South Carolina's congressmen responded with swift opposition, especially when it was heard that a Georgia congressman wanted the lighthouse's bricks for a new house he was building, Bostick said. The tower's destruction was halted, but plans fell through for the local historical preservation society to buy it. Morris Island Lighthouse was transferred to GSA, which offered it to state and local governments, who also refused to take it.

In 1965, the lighthouse was finally sold at auction to a private owner, John Richardson, the operator of a local motel. The cost of renovating the lighthouse proved too much for Richardson, as it would for a string of private owners who each planned to use the lighthouse as part of some profit-making venture, Bostick said. In 1996, Columbia businessman Paul Gunter announced his intention to sell the lighthouse for $100,000. Local citizens formed Save the Light and in a few months raised $75,000 to buy the lighthouse. In April 2000, South Carolina's legislature voted to buy the lighthouse from Save the Light for $1 and lease the structure back to the organization for 99 years.

Save the Light, for its part, is responsible for giving monthly tours and keeping a $1 million insurance policy on the lighthouse, Bostick said. But the state didn't stop there. Two South Carolina lawmakers - Reps. Lynn Seithel, R-Charleston, and Henry Brown, R-Hanahan - were instrumental in getting $500,000 in state money for the project, Bostick said.

Lee said garnering similar support from Alabama legislators would be difficult right now, with state coffers running low and a school funding crisis in full swing. "The timing of the commission's decision, which they had five years to make, is unfortunate," Lee said.

But Bostick was optimistic about Sand Island Light's prospects. It will likely be years before the lighthouse is in any danger of destruction, he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if Sand Island Light went through a private owner before Sand Island Lighthouse Preservation Group got hold of it," Bostick said. "The sooner the better, though. It would be exciting to have a sister preservation project going on down in Mobile."

To help the Sand Island Lighthouse Preservation Group, call Warren Lee at (334) 653-1995. For more information of South Carolina's Save the Light, call Doug Bostick at (843) 795-8911

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