Digest>Archives> July 2003

Keeper’s Work Ethic Saved the Light

By Jim Merkel


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Photo courtesy of Tybee Island Historical Society.

Survivors of the 178-step walk to the top of Georgia’s Tybee Island Light Station may have George Jackson to thank for the workout.

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Photo courtesy of Tybee Island Historical Society.

Jackson was keeper of the light station at the mouth of the Savannah River in the 1930s, when penny-pinching bureaucrats wanted to decommission the station. Fortunately, the district superintendent visited it and decided Jackson ran it so well it would be better to leave it open. His role in keeping the station manned and lit preserved it for the day when lighthouse enthusiasts converted it to one of the premier tourist attractions on the Georgia Coast.

“Had it not been for George Jackson’s work ethic, the Tybee Light would have been decommissioned and in all probability sold off as surplus government property,” said Cullen Chambers, director of the Tybee Island Historical Society, which welcomes 120,000 people each year to the restored Tybee Island Lighthouse. Had that happened, the historic buildings would not have been maintained and likely wouldn’t be available for restoration and public viewing, he said.

That would have prevented two recent events at the station, which has been guiding mariners for nearly 270 years.

On May 17, the lighthouse played host to a major local expression of gratitude to the military. Two hundred people stood in a field next to the lighthouse and spelled out the words “thank you” for a photographer flying above in an airplane.

Then on June 13, Tybee Island played host to the first-day issuance of a series of five stamps featuring lighthouses of the southeast United States, including the Tybee Island light. Others were Old Cape Henry, Cape Lookout, Morris Island and Hillsboro Inlet.

“Tybee Light is very much a part of Georgia and truly represents the coast,” said Linda Lindeborg, a nationally-recognized lighthouse artist and secretary of the Board of Directors of the Tybee Island Historical Society. The Postal Service chose Lindeborg’s picture of the Tybee Island Lighthouse showing the restored keeper’s dwelling for the cachet, the envelope presenting the stamps for cancellation on the day of release.

The society took over maintenance of the lighthouse in 1986, after the Coast Guard vacated the facility, but kept the light at the top of the tower. “Tybee Island Light Station represents one of the most intact light stations in America today,” Chambers said.

With the help of Chambers, its director since 1994, the society restored the lighthouse and the 1881 principal keepers’ cottage and now is restoring the 1885 first assistant keepers’ cottage. Visitors see the restored keeper’s dwelling and other buildings largely as they were when Jackson was keeper.

Chambers puts the combined cost of all three phases at around $1.5 million, with a third of the money coming from the federal government, a third from the state government and a third from fund raising on site.

Volunteers are key to keeping the lighthouse open, Lindeborg said. “They work in the gift shop as meeters and greeters and give information, helping orient people to the site. They are in all the restored structures, answering all kinds of questions that get asked.”

Among the questions they answer is how long there has been a lighthouse on Tybee Island. The answer is “since 1736.” That’s when a beacon was finished to guide ships entering the meandering Savannah River, headed northeast to the settlement of Savannah. A storm knocked down that first lighthouse in 1741 and a new 94-foot-tall tower went up in 1742.

A third lighthouse went up in 1773, although it probably only was a daymark until the 1790s, Chambers said. Some time in the 1790s, 15 whale oil lamps were placed on the top of the tower.

The light was a center of action early in the Civil War. Confederates abandoned Tybee and nearby islands in November 1861 and ordered them back to nearby Fort Pulaski. Confederates removed a Second Order Fresnel Lens that was installed in 1857 and set the light tower on fire, damaging but not destroying the tower.

The lighthouse was part of the Union headquarters for a buildup to a bombardment against Fort Pulaski, which was considered impregnable. But nobody realized the power of a new weapon, the rifle cannon. A bombardment starting on April 10, 1862 quickly breached the fort’s southeastern wall. The Union victory stunned the world, which now realized that the weapon had rendered brick forts obsolete.

“Because of the damage inflicted on it by Confederate forces, it ceased to function as an aid to navigation,” Chambers said. After the Civil War, the light was rebuilt, using the foundation and much of the base of the old one. Chambers calls it a modification of the old 1773 light rather than a construction of a new one. Standing 145 feet from base to vent ball and 154 feet above sea level, the renovated lighthouse was lit on Oct. 1, 1867. Inside was the same nine-foot-tall first-order First Order Fresnel Lens the Coast Guard still uses today to shine a constant light 24 hours a day.

“This was considered of major navigational importance to the maritime industry, which was shipping supplies and men during the reconstruction following the War Between the States,” Chambers said. In a time of global positioning satellites the light remains a valuable navigational aid marking the path to the City of Savannah, the fourth busiest seaport in the United States.

While the lighthouse has had a variety of keepers, Chambers says the most notable one was Jackson, who served as keeper from the early 1920s until 1947. In a service known for cleanliness, “He set the standard, if not exceeded the standard,” Chambers said.

In some ways, Jackson’s descendants who live in the area still are keepers at Tybee. They have donated many of the furnishings George Jackson used for display in the dwellings and are active volunteers. A great grandson of Jackson appears at special events at the lighthouse. “He looks just like his great-grandfather,” Lindeborg said.

This story appeared in the July 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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