Sand Island is located roughly three miles offshore from the primary Mobile Bay entrance, which is bounded on the east by Mobile Point and on the west by Dauphin Island. On May 23, 1828, Congress empowered the Secretary of the Treasury to place an “iron spindle on Sand Island, on the outer bar of Mobile Bay.” This marker, which cost $600 and was visible from a distance of six miles, was completed in 1830.
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 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 built to serve as principal light for Mobile Bay. Under the direction of Army Engineer Danville Leadbetter, a conical brick tower with a height of 150 feet was constructed on the island in 1858 using a $35,000 appropriation made by Congress on August 18, 1856. The lighthouse displayed a light from its first-order Fresnel lens for the first time in January 1859, the same month the new first-class lighthouse at Pensacola, Florida was established.
Sadly, the magnificent new tower on Sand Island had a brief life. Shortly after the Civil War broke out, the Confederates removed the nine-foot-tall lens from the two-year-old lighthouse 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 out to Sand Island from Fort Gaines on Dauphin 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 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.
At the end of the war, a temporary wooden tower, which displayed the light from a fourth-order lens at a height of forty-eight feet, was built along with a keeper’s dwelling. A request for a permanent structure was made, but it would be nine years before a new brick tower was built, and during this time the temporary tower had to be relocated twice to escape the eroding shoreline.
In 1881, the exterior of the tower was coal-tarred, which gave it the black daymark seen in many historic photographs. A small structure, enclosed on three sides, was constructed atop the keepers’ dwelling in 1887 to house a locomotive headlight to serve as a range light. The light was accessed by a trapdoor in the roof of the dwelling. A forty-two-foot-tall skeletal fog signal tower, with an enclosed, nine-foot-square room, was built twenty-three-and-a-half feet from the lighthouse in 1888. The fog bell mounted in the tower commenced operation on September 1, 1888.
Erosion continued unabated along the eastern shore of the island. By 1882, the foundation of the 1858 tower was awash. Brush and stone jetties were extended from the island by the Lighthouse Board in 1885 in an attempt to retard the erosion, but by 1888, only ten feet of sand separated the lighthouse from the Gulf. Rather than abandon the majestic lighthouse, 1,648 tons of granite were placed atop 2,038 tons of oyster shells on the jetty in 1889.
The keeper’s dwelling was moved to a more secure location, 783 feet from the tower, in 1893, and in 1897 1,600 tons of rock were placed around the foundation of the tower. A storm in July 1896 destroyed the station’s fog bell tower. The bell was recovered by the lighthouse tender Arbutus in five feet of water, and a new thirty-seven-foot-tall tower was completed on January 13, 1897.
Five hundred and ninety feet of new jetties, formed using 5,000 tons of riprap laid on brush mattresses, were put in place in 1898, but storms so damaged the protection work that the district engineer judged it impossible to save the tower “by this means within any justifiable cost.” Still, the lighthouse clung tenaciously to the eastern end of the island, and in 1899 a contract was made for delivering 5,000 tons of rock to be placed around the tower. Before this was done, the brick structure at the base of the tower used as an oil house was taken down, and the doorway leading from it into the tower was closed.
The fog bell tower was relocated to the rocks near the base of the tower in 1902 and rebuilt. The lower part was enclosed for use as an oil and store house. Also that year, the lower portion of the tower was floored and arranged for occupancy by the keepers as a temporary dwelling, while the old dwelling was taken down and rebuilt atop pile foundations next to the tower. The light on the dwelling was removed and placed on a post in three feet of water roughly 310 feet south of the lighthouse.
Subsequent keepers were forced 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 twenty-five by thirty foot, two-story dwelling was built atop twelve cast-iron piles that were secured in a concrete base adjacent to the lighthouse. The bottom floor of the dwelling was used for machinery, and the second floor had three bedrooms, a kitchen and bath for three keepers. Total cost for the dwelling was $36,749.
By 1908, the tower stood surrounded by a man-made mountain of rip-rap, separated from the retreating island by a quarter of a mile. During the early 1900s, several more tons of rip-rap were placed around the lighthouse.
On January 17, 1919, reports were made that 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, Keeper John M. Reynolds and assistant William L. Emerson, had gone ashore to pick up a newly appointed assistant keeper. It was concluded that the keepers must have been swamped in breakers or blown out to sea, as they never reached shore.
After the Coast Guard took control of the country’s lighthouses in 1939, three coastguardsmen were assigned to the station until it was de-staffed and automated in 1948. Edgar H. Osburn was serving at Sand Island in March 1947, when he left Fort Morgan in a twenty-one-foot boat to return to the lighthouse with provisions but ended up spending five days in storm-tossed waters and barely escaping with his life. The following is his account of the harrowing incident:
A sudden storm blew up, and a mountainous wave capsized my boat. I righted my boat but all the provisions were lost overboard, and my motor was drowned out. From then on I had to go with the tide. Those waves were coming in so high it looked like they would wash the boat away. I was capsized two more times, but somehow or other I got it right side up again and kept going. The boat was washed out into the gulf and then back. Then, when I was about to die of hunger, a wave blew in a big school of small poppy-fish. I was so hungry I grabbed them and ate them raw.Osburn was delirious when a coast guard cutter finally picked him up five miles south of Sand Island. Suffering from chills and frostbite, Osburn was taken to a marine hospital where he began his recovery and remarked that his survival was due to “Divine Providence.”
Ron Billian was stationed aboard the CGC Blackthorn from September 1965 until being transferred to Hawaii in 1967, and during this period, he occasionally serviced Sand Island Lighthouse. A three-man crew, consisting of an engine man, a seaman, and a boatswain’s mate 2nd class were dispatched in a small boat to Sand Island, where they checked the light, cleaned the lens, and made any necessary repairs. These regular check-ups continued until 1971, when the light was discontinued, and the tower’s second-order, Barbier & Fenestre Fresnel lens was removed. The lens was placed on exhibit at the Fort Morgan museum in 1972. In 1973, the 1925 keeper’s dwelling, which stood on iron pilings next to the tower, burned down.
Before any group could perform restoration work on the abandoned structure, the lighthouse had to be transferred from the federal government. In 2001, the Alabama Historical Commission rejected an offer of the lighthouse, reasoning that it would cost too much to save. Fortunately, Dauphin Island stepped forward and obtained ownership of the lighthouse from the federal government in 2003. In 2006, a 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. Moving the lighthouse to nearby Dauphin Island was explored, but instead it was decided that tiny Sand Island would be replenished and the tower restored in situ. Based on an engineering study conducted 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 be executed.
The plight of Sand Island Lighthouse is similar to its sister light, Morris Island Lighthouse, near Charleston, South Carolina. Both lighthouses were built on sandy islands that have since eroded away leaving the towers surrounded by water. Save The Light, Inc. is making great strides in promoting the preservation of Morris Island Lighthouse, and hopefully the Alabama Lighthouse Foundation will be able to match their success.
Thanks to $6 million in federal funding awarded in the early days of the BP oil spill recovery, an island re-nourishment project was carried out in October and November 2011 to restore Sand Island. Hal Pierce of the Alabama Lighthouse Association thinks many people will be happy with the project. “This is a profoundly important moment,” he said. “It’s going to allow safe access to the light, which we haven’t had in years. We’ll be able make repairs to the light. People can visit it.” The excitement of having the island back didn’t last long, as by March 2012 the sand had migrated west leaving the lighthouse standing alone once again.