The story of the lighthouse begins shortly after the Republic of Texas joined the United States. On March 3, 1849, Congress appropriated $7,500 for a lighthouse at Sabine Pass. Shortly thereafter, Commander Henry A. Adams of the navy arrived in the area on horseback to investigate the need for and possible location of a lighthouse. In his report, Adams concluded that “the coast is so free from danger in that vicinity, the place itself so easy of access, and the business done there so inconsiderable, that, in my opinion, a light-house is not necessary there at this time.” His advice was heeded, and all of the $7,500 allotment, save $116.80 that was most likely used to cover the surveyor’s expenses, was transferred to the surplus fund.
Texas citizens near Sabine Pass strongly disagreed with the surveyor’s findings, and politicians continued to petition Congress for a lighthouse at the pass. Exactly four years after the original allocation, $30,000 was set apart “for a first-class light-house at the mouth of the Sabine River.” This time, a different surveyor recommended that a lighthouse be built and suggested a site on the east side of the river. The land was readily obtained, as it was part of a large military reservation established by the federal government in 1838, at what was then the western frontier of the United States.
Work on the eighty-foot brick tower and adjacent wooden dwelling began in the latter part of 1855 under the direction of John Wilson, and the lighthouse went into service sometime in the late spring or early summer of 1857. As the tower was built on soft marshland, closely spaced wooden pilings were driven into the ground to provide a foundation, and eight buttresses were extended from the base of the tower to distribute its weight over a larger area. Four of the buttresses extended to a radius of ten feet, while the other four protruded an additional eight feet. A third-order Henry-Lepaute Fresnel lens was employed in the lantern room to produce a fixed white light varied by a flash. This was accomplished by vertical elements that revolved around the fixed lens. The tower and dwelling were painted white, and Benjamin F. Granger was hired as the first keeper.
The lighthouse was only in operation for a little over four years, when it fell dark on August 16, 1861 and remained so for the duration of the Civil War. George Plummer, originally from Maine and a loyal Unionist, was serving as keeper at the time. After the oil at the lighthouse was stolen by Confederates, Keeper Gowen took his wife and children aboard one of Admiral Farragut’s ships and returned to Maine. Before leaving his post, he donated all of his livestock as well as three houses, and all of his fencing and firewood to Union soldiers.
On October 12, 1886, a fierce hurricane struck Sabine Pass. Following the tempest, a relief boat arrived from Galveston and spent a day gathering dead bodies and providing aid to the survivors near Sabine Pass. Upon arriving at the lighthouse, the relief party found Keeper Gustav Hummeland, his lady friend, and Assistant Keeper Henry Plummer and his wife holed up in the tower. The rising waters had prompted the group to seek refuge in the upper portion of the lighthouse and abandon the dwelling which was soon torn apart by the wind and waves. The flood water at the station rose to a depth of more than twenty feet, and spray reached a window fifty feet up the tower. The powerful winds even succeeded in lifting a hundred-pound iron trapdoor in the lighthouse that had been secured with a five-gallon can of oil.
By the end of the following summer, a new forty by forty-eight foot double-dwelling had been constructed atop piles that rose ten feet above the marsh. A forty-foot-long elevated walkway connected the house to the tower, and a 12,150-gallon cistern and a boathouse were added just north of the dwelling. A second-order oil house was built in 1892, and in 1898, a 1,350-foot-long raised boardwalk, built of cypress wood, was extended from the tower to the main channel west of the lighthouse.
A hurricane that struck the area on August 16 – 17, 1915 caused such severe vibrations in the tower that the clockwork mechanism responsible for revolving the flash panels stopped working. Head Keeper William B. Thompson and Charles C. Sapp, his assistant, were thus forced to maintain the light's characteristic by revolving the panels by hand. The Secretary of Commerce commended the keepers for performing their duties under hazardous and trying conditions. The station’s wharf, walkways, and outbuildings were carried away by the hurricane, and several nearby range lights were destroyed.
Around the end of the nineteenth century, jetties were built at the mouth of the Sabine River to improve access to inland ports. The Spindletop Oil Field was discovered near Beaumont in 1901, and shipping traffic experienced a sharp increase. By 1921, the jetties extended over four miles into the gulf, effectively moving the coastline farther seaward from Sabine Pass Lighthouse. A light and fog signal were installed at the end of the eastern jetty in 1924, diminishing the importance of the old, land-based light. Though several individuals recommended abandoning the lighthouse, others reasoned that Sabine Pass Lighthouse was a convenient base for tending the jetty light. The decision was made to keep the lighthouse active. Electricity and a radio beacon were installed at the station in 1929, and in 1932 two ten-foot-wide, black horizontal bands were painted on the tower to make it more visible on hazy days.
In 1953, the federal government turned the property over to the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission that planned to use the buildings as a field station for its game wardens. However, the station was underutilized and was eventually returned to the General Services Administration. In 1971, the property was given to Lamar State College of Technology at Beaumont. The college intended to use the site as a research and teaching complex, but the expense of accessing the station thwarted their plans, and they returned the property to the federal government after just two years.
With no resident caretaker to look after it, the lighthouse suffered greatly. In early 1974, vandals climbed the tower and cut away the copper roofing from the lantern room, exposing the interior of the tower to the full force of the elements. Shortly after this, the lighthouse was transferred to Louisiana State Parks and Recreation. Two years later, on September 7, 1976, a marsh fire destroyed the keepers’ dwelling, along with the boathouse, two outhouses, and most of the elevated boardwalks. Only the brick tower and oil house survived.
After the State of Louisiana had tried and failed a second time to use the lighthouse, the General Services Administration opted to rid itself of the property through a public auction. On June 24, 1986, William Pielop and P.G. Grenader outbid thirteen other interested parties and acquired the lighthouse and forty-five acres of marshland for the sum of $55,000. The two owners considered developing a yacht basin or a restaurant at the site, but their plans were never realized. The property remained in the hands of the two families until it was given to Cameron Preservation Alliance on May 5, 2001.
Thanks to Cheniere Energy, a four-mile road has been built to the lighthouse, making the lighthouse approachable by land for the first time. This improvement should aid in the restoration effort. To help with their fundraising efforts, the preservation alliance hosted an annual hayride to the lighthouse for several years. With continued vision and persistence and a healthy grant or two, the project just might take off.
Two men took a boat to the lighthouse in 2008 and climbed to the top of the lighthouse. As they started to descend, the ladder broke, stranding them in the tower. Fortunately, one of the men had a cell phone and called for help. Firefighters soon arrived, and, after having to swim across the inlet near the lighthouse, they succeeded in rescuing the men with a rope harness. The two grateful men were cited by the local sheriff’s department for trespassing and property damage. In 2009, Sabine Pass was one of five Gulf Coast lighthouses commemorated in a postage stamp series.
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