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Repairs Begin For Lighthouse
Near Dauphin Island
Staff Reporter Sunday, August 10, 2008

Barge with 3 cement trucks approach Sand Island Light
Click for Photo Enlargement
As the sun crept into the sky over the Gulf of Mexico, an odd scene unfolded around the Sand Island Lighthouse, about three miles from Dauphin Island.

Three cement trucks were lined up on a barge, floating in the water, as concrete was pumped through a hose into a frame surrounding the 135-year-old tower's base. The repairs last week were part of recent efforts to stabilize Alabama's oldest lighthouse and keep it from collapsing into Gulf waters. Experts have said it would take millions of dollars to fully restore the lighthouse - once a beacon of light at the entrance to Mobile Bay - and make it accessible to visitors.

Sand Island Lighthouse, constructed in 1873, has survived decades of damage from salty waves, strong winds and erosion. Even its namesake island migrated westward with the currents, abandoning the tower that now stands alone. Pilings from a destroyed house still stand on the rocks.

"When I was growing up, it was just the one house left, but it used to be a little village out here," said Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier.

Deactivated by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1933, the lighthouse remained in federal hands until the town of Dauphin Island, in partnership with the Alabama Lighthouse Association, took possession of it in 2003.

After weathering abuse from hurricanes Ivan and Katrina in recent years, repairs funded by more than $1 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency began last month. The work is scheduled to be finished by mid-September.

Final details on the 'stabilization ring' form<br>
             readed as the wet cement approaches.
Click for Photo Enlargement
Work crews have poured a concrete supporting ring that, after it dries, will be dyed to match the red-brown color of the original bricks.

The tower stretches 126 feet into the air - about double the length of a bowling alley. Tucked inside is an iron staircase that generations of lighthouse watchers climbed to reach the galley on top.

Experts have said the only reason Sand Island Lighthouse, and many other lighthouses across the nation, have survived decades of neglect is the quality of their original construction. Sand Island Lighthouse is rooted by 171 wood pilings, surrounded by a concrete wall. Engineers studying the lighthouse have said the foundation appears to be in good condition. "Those pilings will never go away as long as they stay in water," said John Cain, president of Satsuma-based Remedial Services Inc., which is working on the project.

Masonry work repairing bricks where bolder were slamed into the tower.
Click for Enlargement
The current work will also include repairs to damaged bricks by a masonry company, officials said. Strong winds from Hurricane Ivan slammed some of the boulders into the lighthouse, causing damage to the bricks, officials said. In an effort to prevent that in future storms, the boulders will be tied together using steel wiring.

The project is being overseen by Mobile-based Thompson Engineering, which conducted a study of the lighthouse's condition and what it would take to bring it into use as a tourist attraction.

The report recommends several major repairs:
Fix vertical cracks and add steel rings inside to bind the tower together.
Rebuild and protect the island where the tower is built.
Repair bricks to prevent minor cracks from growing.
Restore the staircase, landings, handrails and copper roof.

According to the report, a 1.3-acre island with sand surrounded by a rock wall could be built around the lighthouse, allowing visitors to dock and disembark. That plan would cost $36 million, including restoration of the tower.

Another long-term restoration option would be to add more rocks around the lighthouse to protect the foundation, which in total would cost $15.9 million, according to the report. Collier said the town is considering several funding options, including a statewide fundraising campaign and grants.

A shorter, 55-foot lighthouse was built on the island in 1838, replaced years later by a tower nearly three times its size in 1858. Confederate soldiers during the Civil War discovered that Union troops were using the tower, located between Fort Gaines and Fort Morgan, to spy on them. Confederates used explosives to blow up the tower in 1861.

Jim Hall, board member of the Alabama Lighthouse Association, said the lighthouse was used as a guiding light to the ships traveling in and out of the busy port of Mobile Bay, carrying bales of cotton,
Mobile media, newspaper and TV covered the event.
Click for enlargement
bananas and other cargo.

"Mobile distinctly has a very rich maritime history," Hall said. "When a ship from Central America finally saw that lighthouse, they were very grateful that they hit the right spot." In the future, Hall said, the association would also like to have a new light installed at the top to once again shine on the entrance to Mobile Bay.

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

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