In October 1855, J.F. Gilmer, Captain of Engineers, sent the following to the Lighthouse Board recommending the erection of “a harbor beacon on ‘the bay,’ city of Savannah, as an aid to vessels approaching the city at night.”
I would propose the erection of a cast iron column 25 feet high, surmounted with a lantern similar to the street lanterns of a city, but much larger, and with red lights. The column should be enclosed with a suitable railing, for protection. The cost would be about $2,000. If desired by the board, the mayor of Savannah will make application at once to the legislature of Georgia for the grant of jurisdiction, &c, and the city will give the land necessary for the purpose.
On August 18, 1856, Congress appropriated $2,000 for a “small light to be erected on the bay, in the city of Savannah, to guide vessels from Fig Island light-house,” and during 1857 and 1858, $1,969.12 was expended in completing the light. The beacon’s gas light shone from a focal plane of seventy-seven feet as an aid to ships entering Savannah’s harbor. The harbor beacon was referred to as “The Bay” on Light Lists and by the Lighthouse Board, and the Savannah City Gas Company was paid $150 annually to care for the light.
In conjunction with Fig Island Lighthouse, The Bay served as a range light to guide incoming vessels past six Revolutionary War ships intentionally scuttled by the British in 1779 to keep French ships out of the harbor. The Lighthouse Board noted the following for The Bay in 1869: “This beacon-light being no longer a range, has been discontinued.”
Due to a change in the channel leading from Fig Island to Savannah, Congress appropriated $3,000 on March 3, 1879 to change the location of the light on Fig Island and to establish a companion light on the tower of the Exchange Building in Savannah. On December 1, 1880, a light was activated in the cupola of the Exchange Building to serve as the rear light of Fig Island Range.
Known today as the Old Harbor Light, the ornamented cast-iron shaft that served as The Bay is now flanked by several large ship anchors and stands in Emmet Park overlooking the Savannah River.
In 1958, the centennial year of the erection of the Old Harbor Light, the Trustees Garden Club developed the portion of Emmet Park where the beacon now stands. Years of salty humidity slowly ate away at the twenty-five-foot, cast-iron post, and in the late 1990s, the structure was found to be unstable. Cables were put in place to stabilize the beacon, and the lamp was extinguished.
Restoration of the beacon was planned as part of a $3 million-plus effort to clean and repair Savannah’s forty-three historic monuments, which draw tourists from all parts to the historic city. The cost of restoring the beacon range light was projected to be $200,000, and the Savannah Morning News and CSX Corp. each graciously donated $62,500 towards the effort. During the first week of August 2000, the range light was disassembled into six parts, and a crane then hoisted the parts onto a flatbed truck, which carried them to a fabrication shop for the needed repairs.
Rust was removed. Repairs to the corroded iron were made. The lenses were cleaned, and on January 11, 2001, the restored Old Harbor Light was relit in Emmet Park.
Keepers: Savannah City Gas Company, James Kearney (1866 – 1867), William Ryan (1867 – 1869).