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The Lighthouses of Sand Island,
Mouth of Mobile Bay, Alabama

Compiled by Jim Hall, December, 2008

Today's Sand Island Light House is located off shore at the mouth of Mobile Bay, bounded on the east by Mobile Point (on Fort Morgan peninsula), 2.6 miles away, and 3.4 miles to the west by Dauphin Island.
The island's size exceeded 400 acres in the 1800s, but today, it is has shrunk to less than one acre. The first site chosen was the nearest spot of dry land to the Mobile Bar when the United States took control over Alabama in 1819. The island has earned a dubious reputation as fickle and intinerant - eroding, shifting, dividing, and eventually disappearing altogether.


1823 Mobile Bay map
1823 Mobile Bay Map
U.S. Treasury Department officials, convinced that the light from Mobile Point (the tip of Ft. Morgan peninsula, east side of the mouth of Mobile Bay) somehow arched over the horizon makeing it visible 30 miles, orginally believed a light on Sand Island could never be of any value. A tall iron spindle, visible an advertised six miles to sea, marked the island in 1830

Mariners complained about the inadequacy of the marker. On March 3, 1837, Congress responded with an allotment of $10,000 for a lighthouse on Sand Island. The lighthouse, built by Winslow Lewis, rose to a height of fifty-five feet and was fitted with fourteen lamps backed by sixteen-inch reflectors. Lewis completed the project under budget, returning $1,101 to the government.

John McCloud served as the first keeper of the lighthouse, which was outshone by the more powerful Mobile Point Lighthouse and was thus considered a second-class beacon.

Sand Island Lighthouse circa 1859
-Enlarged photo is large, could be slow loading-
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

A coast survey in 1848 reported, "Sand Island has lost a strip the whole length of the eastern shore from 66 to 100 yards in width". Year after the year, the eastern end of the island was slowing being whittled away. By the early 1850s, it was apparent that a new lighthouse was needed for the island, and this time a first-class tower was to be built. Under the direction of Army Engineer Danville Leadbetter, a conical brick tower with a height of nearly 200 feet was constructed on the island in 1858. The lighthouse was the tallest to ever be built on the Gulf Coast and displayed a first-order Fresnel lens.

Sadly, this magnificent tower had a short life. The Civil War broke out when the lighthouse had been in use for just over two years. The Confederates removed the nine-foot-tall lens and placed it in storage before Union forces gained control of the island. On December 20, 1862, Union blockaders installed a fourth-order lens in the tower, which also served as a lookout for spying on the Confederates.

Irritated by the proximity of the enemy, a band of Confederates led by John W. Glenn rowed from Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island out to Sand Island. Before being challenged by the guns of the USS Pembina, the intruders had torched several frame buildings near the lighthouse. Glenn swore that he
Danville Leadbetter,
Graduate West Point,
Capt. US Army when
building Sand Island.
Confederate General
ordered destruction..
would return to the island, and "tumble the Light House down in their teeth". On the morning of February 23, 1863, roughly a month after his previous visit to the island, Glenn made good on his promise. After placing seventy pounds of gun powder under the tower, he lit a fuse and retreated amidst a downpour of bricks. Glenn's report on the tower's destruction was addressed to none other than Danville Leadbetter, the builder of the tower, who was now Brigadier General in the Confederate Army.

Shortly after Admiral Farragut entered Mobile Bay, a fourth-order lens elevated only 48 feet above sea level again marked Sand Island, this time atop a substantial but temporary wood tower adfacent to the ruins. Local lighthouse engineer Max F. Bonzano asked Washington for the original tower plans so he could rebuild. Exigencies of war postponed any work.


The tower was constructed using a popular plan of the 1870s that was also used for the Carolina lighthouses at Bodie Island, Currituck, and Charleston.

The classical brick tower was built on a foundation of 171 pilings overlaid with twelve feet of cement. The lighthouse rose to a height of 132 feet and was constructed 670 feet northwest of the previous site. The new light was activated on September 1, 1873, and shortly thereafter, a substantial two-story keepers' house was added.

Sand Island Lighthouse circa 1892
"The Sea Encroaches"
Photo, US National Archives

Erosion continued unabated along the eastern shore of the island. By 1880, the foundation of the 1858 tower was awash. Jetties were extended from the island by the US Lighthouse Board in an attempt to retard the erosion, but by 1888, only 10 feet of sand separated the lighthouse from the Gulf. Rather than abandon the majestic lighthouse, 1,600 tons of granite were placed around the tower in 1889. A decade later, 6,548 more tons were added. The lighthouse clung tenaciously to the eastern end of the island.

Before the keepers' dwelling was lost to erosion, it was torn down in 1901 and replaced with a six-room dwelling.

Two keepers and their wives were assigned to the lighthouse... Unaware a huge storm was in the Gulf of Mexico, a few days before the 1906 hurricane struck, one of the keepers went to shore. The hurricane shut down operations of the light, the tower remained intact, and the remaining keeper and wives were gone...never to be found. A lighthouse inspector sent the following telegram describing the damage: "Sand Island light out. Island washed away. Dwelling gone. Keepers not to be found."

Replacement keepers were destined to live in the base of the tower until a new dwelling was built. Unfortunately, for them, this did not happen until 1925, when a 25 x 30 foot dwelling was built atop twelve cast-iron piles that were secured in a concrete base adjacent to the lighthouse.
Government insectors
Visit Sand Island
Amid bolders
Photo, US National Archives

By 1908, the tower stood on a man-made mountain of rip-rap, separated from the retreating island (to the west) by a quarter of a mile.

During the early 1900s, several more tons of rip-rap was placed around the lighthouse.

On January 17, 1919, reports were made that the Sand Island Lighthouse had not been lit the previous night. An investigation team was dispatched to the island, where they read in the station's log book that the two keepers had gone ashore to pick up a second assistant keeper. It was concluded that the keepers must have been swamped in breakers or blown out to sea, as they never reached shore. There are those, today, who suspect the keepers simply quit and stole the boat.

In 1921, the lighthouse was automated. The light was deactivated eleven years later, 1932.

Since that time, the pile of granite blocks has managed to provide a secure footing for the lighthouse without further aid from man. The second-order Fresnel lens was removed by the US Coast Guard from the tower in 1971, and then placed, on loan, for exhibit in the Fort Morgan museum the following year.

In 1973 the 1925 keeper's dwelling, which stood on iron pilings next to the tower, burned down.

Before restoration work could begin on the lighthouse, it had to be transferred from the federal government. In 2001, after nearly four years of consideration, the Alabama Historical Commission rejected an offer of the lighthouse, reasoning that it would cost too much to save.

Fortunately, the Town of Dauphin Island municipal government stepped forward and obtained ownership of the lighthouse from the federal government in 2003.

In 2006, a safety trip was made to the lighthouse to devise a safe manner for landing at the lighthouse and for climbing the tower in preparation for a planned engineering study. Funding for the study was supplied by the Alabama LightHouse Association. The Town of Dauphin Island awarded the engineering study to Thompson Engineering, in Mobile. Moving the lighthouse to nearby Dauphin Island was explored, but not recommended. A comperhensive plan with several options was presented, including reccomendations for stabilization and complete restoation.

Based on the engineering study by Thompson Engineering released in 2007, and, using FEMA hurricane recovery funds in excess of one million dollars, boulders around the lighthouse were rearranged and tied together with stainless steel cables, a ring of reinforced cement was poured around the base of the lighthouse, and missing bricks and mortar were added to the tower during the summer of 2008.

This stabilization work should keep the lighthouse standing until a long-term restoration plan can proceed. The Alabama Lighthouse Association continues its support for the Town of Dauphin Island for the restoration of this historical landmark, one of the last symbols of Mobile Bay's rich maritime heritage.

  • Lighthouses, Lightships, and the Gulf of Mexico, Cipra, 1997.
  • Sand Island Lighthouse Chronicles, Lee, 1998.
  • Alabama LightHouse Association

  • Fort Gaines Sand Island Light House Shell Mounds on Dauphin Island Dauphin Island History Dauphin Island Sea Lab Estuarium

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    Gulf Information Pages, Dauphin Island, AL