Digest>Archives> May 1998

St. Simons Light Gets Even Brighter

By Pat Morris


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Workmen painting the tower of Georgia's St. ...
Photo by: Pat Morris

St. Simons Island, Georgia-To vessels as far as 23 miles out to sea, the mighty beam of the St. Simons Lighthouse is a pretty and comforting sight as it cuts through the night air. Up close, the lighthouse is spectacular in the moonlight.

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This dramatic photograph from the lantern room ...
Photo by: Jetta Fraser courtesy of the Florida Times-Union.

In the last year or so, however, this island's most recognizable landmark started to look a little weathered in the harsh light of day. Paint was flaking. Caulking had cracked. Rust spots embarrassed the catwalk. The old girl has been on the job, after all, for 126 years. Try it, if you think it's easy.

Something needed to be done. The non-profit Coastal Georgia Historical Society, which takes care of the working lighthouse in conjunction with the U.S. Coast Guard, dipped into its pockets and hired a Jacksonville company to fix everything that needed fixing. A.W. Aquilar's Advanced Coating and Caulking quoted a good price, as well as donated services up to $30,000. Aquilar started the job at the start of the year and finished in early March. Much depended on the weather.

"When the wind picks up briskly while we're dangling a hundred feet up in the air, there's a good chance paint is going to spray cars on the street below," Aquilar says. "We just have to wait until it dies down to below 20 miles per hour." Rain washes away wet paint and makes things too slick for safety.

Aquilar employees Rick Stein of Jacksonville and Tony Johnson of Brunswick know that careless mistakes can result in a lifetime of bad dreams, so every move is taken with care, they say. The rig they use to work below the walkway near the top of the lighthouse is supported by a half-inch main cable. Tying things together are slightly smaller cables. Their high-wire act doesn't have a net, but it does have a rope grab, or brake, Stein explains.

Johnson's head pops up from below the metal walkway and he says that working with nothing but air immediately under his chair doesn't bother him. He concentrates on the section he can reach in front of him and nothing else.

Stein says they work on sections about five feet wide until they are finished. The job requires pressure blasting or wire-brushing mildew, bad paint, rust, anything that might cause trouble during the next 25 or 30 years. That's how long the job Aquilar's team is doing should last. The protective coating-a Thoro product-is much thicker than paint and is designed to withstand wind and rain moving at 90 miles per hour.

The lighthouse was authorized by Congress in 1869 and first lit as a navigational aid in 1872, executive director Linda King tells visitors. The hard-burned, handmade bricks came from the Hermitage Plantation at Richmond Hill. The walls are three feet thick and the 30-foot-diameter base sits eight feet into the ground.

The steel for the 129 steps to the great light atop the 104-foot structure was fabricated locally. The words "Brunswick Foundry" are still clear along the outside walkway circling under the light. Stein and Johnson applied red primer and multiple coats of black paint to the metal areas.

The lighthouse doesn't have an elevator, so getting a couple of hundred pounds of paint to the top takes work-and pulleys. Stein estimates they used perhaps 200 gallons of paint. A five-gallon can weighs about 100 pounds. It took a couple of lifts a day.

Company owner, Aquilar is a Jacksonville native with more than 20 years in the business before starting his own firm two years ago. A recent job was re-doing the exterior of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Brunswick. His next project is cleaning the exterior of a 40-story cast-concrete building in Jacksonville. Which one, he is asked. "The only one," he responds.

The Museum of Coastal History and St. Simons Lighthouse are located on St. Simons Island, one of the four barrier islands that make up the Golden Isles of Georgia. The historic site consists of an 1872 brick lighthouse and keeper's dwelling, designed by architect Charles Cluskey, an 1890 oil house, and a Victorian gazebo. The Museum contains exhibits on the history of the St. Simons lighthouse and the way of life for the turn-of-the-century lighthouse keeper and his family. The operational lighthouse and museum are in the Village at 101 12th Street, St. Simons Island, which is 15 miles by car from I-95 at Brunswick, Georgia (or 5 miles from U.S. 17 in Brunswick). Hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $3.00 for adults and $1.00 for children (six to eleven). For more information, contact the Coastal Georgia Historical Society at (912)638-4666.

This story appeared in the May 1998 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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