Congress appropriated $7,000 on March 16, 1804 for a lighthouse on Saint Simons Island, and John Couper, owner of a plantation on the southern end of the island, sold four acres of his land to the government later that year for a token sum of one dollar. Couper was anxious that a lighthouse be built on the island to aid commerce in the Brunswick area.
James Gould, newly arrived from New England, answered the ad and suggested that the tower be constructed of tabby, a local building material made from a mixture of lime, water, sand and oyster shells, and that some other minor alterations to the design be made. Gould’s suggestions were accepted, and he was awarded the contract.
Gould used the ruins of Fort Frederica, which was built on the island in 1736, as a source for the tabby, and completed the seventy-five-foot tower in late 1810 at a cost of $13,775. Oil lamps suspended on chains served as the original light source.
With St. Simons Lighthouse finished, Gould was now out of work, but the following excerpt from a letter exchanged between two of his sisters reveals his time at the lighthouse was not yet done.
James has been officially appointed Keeper of the Light by President Madison, at a salary of $400 a year. The appointment came 4 May and he was, in spite of the small pay, plainly pleased to be trusted with the keeping of his beloved lighthouse. He appears also proud of the tower, so far, but what he insists is my discontent, I feel is somehow his own. I simply try to make him laugh and attempt to understand what it is he really wants to do with his life once the lighthouse is completed and he has been its keeper long enough to be satisfied that the lantern and all else is in order.Apparently Gould was not too discontented with his life at the lighthouse as he served as keeper for twenty-seven years.
A residence was evidently not built with the lighthouse as James Gould was paid $1,700 in 1830 to build a keeper’s dwelling. In 1838, it was noted that the tower’s eight-inch reflectors were too small. This problem was corrected in 1847 when nine lamps with fourteen-inch reflectors were installed in the lantern room. In 1856, the lighthouse was outfitted with a third-order Fresnel lens.
When Confederate troops abandoned the island in 1862, they dynamited the tower and keeper’s cottage, so they would not benefit Union forces.
Following the Civil War, noted Georgia architect Charles B. Cluskey drew up plans for a new lighthouse and dwelling on the island for which Congress had appropriated $45,000 on March 2, 1867. In the fall of 1869, a contract for the project was awarded to the lowest bidder with a completion date around the middle of the following year. Difficulties in procuring materials and landing them at the site resulted in the completion date being pushed back to November 1, 1870, but even this date would prove too ambitious. During the summer months, there was a great deal of sickness at the site, and the contractor fell ill and died. One of the contractor’s two bondsmen stepped in to complete the work, but he also passed away at the lighthouse.
The keepers at the new lighthouse repeatedly complained about the unhealthy living conditions on the island, prompting the Lighthouse Board finally to drain the ponds near the lighthouse in 1875. Seeds of the Eucalyptus globulus tree were also planted at the station, as the trees were believed to neutralize the noxious gases that caused malaria. Only later was it learned that the trees helped prevent malaria by consuming large quantities of water, thus helping to drain the swampy areas where mosquitoes bred.
On a Sunday morning in March 1880, Keeper Frederick Osborne and John Stevens, his assistant, had a duel on the lighthouse grounds, wherein Stevens shot Osborne dead. The two keepers had been working together at the lighthouse for roughly five years, but things came to a head when, according to various accounts, either Osborne made inappropriate remarks to Stevens’ wife, or Stevens made unwanted advances towards Osborne’s wife.
Stevens was later acquitted of murder charges, which may have prevented a peaceful rest for the departed Osborne, whose service was cut short. During Carl Svendsen’s service as keeper, which lasted from 1907 to 1935, he and his wife repeatedly heard mysterious footfalls, which would send their dog Jink into a frenzy. To this day, people claim to hear inexplicable footsteps in the tower.
A speaking tube was installed in 1876 to connect the watchroom atop the tower with the dwelling so the relief keeper could be summoned. Keeper Isaac Peckham was lying down in the watchroom on the evening of August 31, 1886 when at 9:30 p.m. the Charleston earthquake shook the station. Keeper Peckhman reported that the accompanying noise “was like that made by a horse running over a hard road” and that one of the red flash panels broke. In May 1887, Mother Nature took another swipe at the station when lightning struck the dwelling. This prompted the addition of two new lightning conductors, with improved ground connections, to the dwelling.
The front beacon, which was located roughly 1,000 feet east of the lighthouse, was again destroyed by a storm in 1898, necessitating the erection of a new structure. When the foundation of the front beacon started being undermined by high tides, a pile foundation was built to support the light in 1900, as the range was too short to allow the beacon to be shifted closer to the lighthouse. An elevated plank walk, linking the beacon to the high-water mark was built in 1904.
In 1890, a brick oil house was constructed on the lighthouse grounds to store the volatile kerosene, which replaced the increasingly expensive whale oil as the lamp fuel. The nine-by-eleven building could hold 450 five-gallon oil cans. Kerosene was in turn replaced by electricity in 1934, and the station was automated sixteen years later in 1950. Shortly after automation, the passageway connecting the tower to the dwelling was removed.
The keepers’ dwelling was vacant for several years until it was leased to Glynn County in 1972 for use as a museum and visitors center. After three years of restorative work overseen by the Coastal Georgia Historical Society, the museum opened to the public. The tower was opened in 1984 to climbers willing to brave the 129-step spiral staircase. Under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, ownership of St. Simons Lighthouse was officially transferred to the Coastal Georgia Historical Society on May 26, 2004.