When 120 mph winds and torrential rains pounded the Gulf of Mexico in August of 1915, over 60 people took refuge inside the Bolivar Lighthouse. Now a barn owl escapes the Texas sun through the open slits on the 127-foot tower. It’s difficult to imagine more than five dozen people cowering on the 137 cast-iron steps of the spiral staircase waiting out the hurricane, which claimed the lives of 12 people in nearby Galveston. The Bolivar group emerged to find their homes washed away and their property devastated. That included the keeper’s home, built in 1860.
“This house was finished in 1916,” said Michael Maxwell, who lives in the keeper’s house. He and his wife, Dana, are the first year-round residents on the lighthouse property since his family purchased it in 1947. “My grandmother and her brother, E.W. Boyt, bought the property when it went up for auction,” Maxwell said. The ranching family saw it as a central location for their nearby winter pastures; the lighthouse and two houses were an added bonus. Cattle still graze near the property, but a wooden cattle guard and chain-link fence keep them from the immediate area of the lighthouse.
Maxwell moved to the property in March 2001 and began renovating the main keeper’s house on the east side of the lighthouse. His cousins, Mark and Jeb Boyt, own the assistant keepers’ house on the west side of the light. Residents of Austin, the Boyts use the duplex as a vacation retreat. Like the keeper’s house, it was also built in 1916, but it housed the two assistant keepers, offering each a private space separated by a wall. A breezeway separates the kitchens from the sleeping quarters and living areas. The Boyts used contractors to renovate their house and the work is now complete. The Maxwells are doing much of their remodeling themselves, one room at a time.
The couple has battled everything from killer bees (in the bathroom wall) to termites and vandalism. But one of the biggest challenges is familiar to anyone who owns an older home: everything takes longer than you think and costs more than you planned. The newlyweds beam with pride as they talk about their completed bedroom. Original hardwood floors compliment towering thirteen-foot ceilings and tongue and groove slatted walls with a fireplace nestled in the corner. “The wood is hard; you can burn up a drill trying to sink a hole in it,” Maxwell said. They found the 1916 long-leaf pine impossible to match with today’s lumber offerings. But their final choice was something similar, if not exact — a philosophy that’s guided the entire restoration process. “I’m trying to go back as much to the original as I can with what I have,” Maxwell said.
He’s changed out windows and shutters, replaced stairs and posts and removed dropped ceilings from the house. But Maxwell knows more renovation lies ahead. “I figure it will take about five years before it is completely done,” he said. Scraping and painting, electrical upgrades, and roof repairs all vie for Maxwell’s attention on the weekends. He says his long-term goal is to get the house finished so he doesn’t have to work on it all the time. Fortunately, having the property occupied has eliminated the vandalism, which plagued the lighthouse during the last half of the twentieth century. Maxwell said broken windows were the norm when his family would come for vacations during his youth. And some of the vandals caused permanent damage. Maxwell points to a circle of bricks surrounding the base of the lighthouse and explains there used to be two layers. “People would carry bricks up the (lighthouse) stairs and then throw them on the roof of the houses,” he said. The pranksters likely contributed to Maxwell’s ongoing battle with leaks. “The roof has been a sieve and I don’t think I have all the holes fixed yet.” But Maxwell doesn’t mind the work. He says he gets a lot of gratification from finishing a project and living on the property and restoring it has been his lifelong dream.
“This is one of the best pieces of real estate in Texas,” he declares. From the Maxwells’ elevated porch, which looks out over the Gulf with the sound of the sea birds wheeling and diving overhead, it’s difficult to disagree. Hardly a day goes by that photographers and tourists don’t stop to take pictures or ask to walk around the lighthouse. Maxwell said several people have asked if the light is haunted. An internet site claims that a boy killed his parents inside the lighthouse. The story appears to be pure ocean legend because no histories of the area note deaths occurring on the property. Maxwell said no one in his family had any information on the incident and it certainly seems the kind of story cousins would enjoy sharing when the moon illuminates the towering black monolith.
Maxwell and the Boyts’ long-term plans include preservation efforts for the lighthouse. Built in 1872, the years and salt air have worn on the structure. The tower is brick covered with riveted cast iron plates. Oxidation has given the metal a uniform shade of nearly black and the rust has completely devoured some of the railing at the top of the lighthouse. The families recently added a new wooden deck at the top of the tower to protect it from the elements and stop erosion of the masonry. Rainwater would pour through the open space at the top where the lens once sat. But now the 130-year-old bricks stay mostly dry during the storms. Efforts to animal-proof the light have been less successful. “The owl had a nest of babies, but I guess they’ve all flown away,” Dana said as she climbed the tight spiral staircase inside the lighthouse.
Hurricanes still pound the coast and challenge the residents. Mike and Dana delayed their wedding because of Tropical Storm Fay, which battered Texas in September 2002. Floodwaters covered Highway 87 eliminating access for guests and dousing plans for an outdoor ceremony. The couple wondered if Mother Nature had it in for them when Hurricane Lili began closing in on the Gulf Coast in early October, threatening their rescheduled wedding date of October 5. Lili made landfall October 3rd on the Louisiana coast, less than 100 miles east of Port Bolivar. By October 5th, the skies were clear and the climate was favorable for exchanging vows. The Maxwells were married under a palm tree in the shadow of the family lighthouse.
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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