Digest>Archives> June 2010

Alabama Historical Commission’s Double Standard for Lighthouse Preservation

By Timothy Harrison

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The Mobile Point Rear Range Lighthouse as it ...

Recently, the Alabama Historical Commission voted against a proposal by the Alabama Lighthouse Society to move the endangered Mobile Middle Bay Lighthouse to the mainland where it could be properly protected, restored and opened to the public. Instead they opted to make a commitment of $30,000 a year to help maintain the historic lighthouse, even though they had done very little to help the decapitated lighthouse since it was deactivated in 1967. And, even now, they probably would not have made that commitment of it were not for the amount of media attention the abandoned lighthouse has drawn.

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The Mobile Point Rear Range Light as it appeared ...

Such was not the case for Alabama’s Battery Gladden Lighthouse, another nearby screw pile lighthouse that deteriorated so badly that in the 1950s it was simply allowed to disappear from the bay. Okay, one might think, that happened over 50 years ago and things are different now. You might want to tell us that the Alabama Historical Commission is making a real effort in lighthouse preservation and we have no right to complain just because we disagree with the way they want to save Mobile Middle Bay Lighthouse.

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This close up view shows the decaying iron work ...

You might want to tell us about the heroic efforts being done to save the state’s endangered Sand Island Lighthouse. But, in reality, nearly all of those efforts have had very little to do with the AHC, but, instead have fallen on the dedicated backs of others. In fact, the AHC originally stated that it would not be worth the money to try to save Sand Island Lighthouse.

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David M. Smithweck was the driving force behind ...

Now let’s take a look at another Alabama lighthouse, the Mobile Point Rear Range Lighthouse, where the AHC has had direct involvement for many years, an involvement that they have poorly handled, to say the least.

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Mobile Point Rear Range Lighthouse as looked ...

The story of the Mobile Point Rear Range Lighthouses goes back to 1872, when the lighthouse was prefabricated and then shipped to Alabama, where it was erected at Fort Morgan to replace a light that had been damaged beyond repair in the Civil War. It was first lighted on February 15, 1873 and continued to serve for the next 93 years until the government decided to replace it with an erector-style tower. Instead of making any effort to save the old tower as an historical artifact, the Coast Guard hired a private contractor, Tex Edwards, to take the old lighthouse down and cart it away. Instead of selling the lighthouse for scrap metal, Edwards realized that he had a real slice of America history. So, he put it in storage.

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The disassembled Mobile Point Rear Range ...

Now fast forward to 1977 when David M. Smithweck, a Mobile realtor and member of the City of Mobile Museum, found out that the lighthouse in storage had been put up for sale by a Pensacola, Florida firm owned by Tex Edwards, who was in ill health and was disposing of some of his assets. Edwards had kept the lighthouse in storage for all those years. Through a series of meetings and conversations, one thing led to another and Edward’s son offered not only donate the lighthouse to the State of Alabama, but he would also deliver the 20,000 pound tower back to Alabama at his expense.

Then, Mr. Smithweck, as a representative of the City of Mobile Museum, presented the lighthouse to Warner Floyd, Director of the AHC, with the understanding that the lighthouse would be restored and re-erected at Fort Morgan.

However, for the next twelve years, the lighthouse lay on its side and suffered further deterioration. Finally, the AHC secured $64,150 in federal funding to restore the lighthouse, and in 1991 it was erected at a site near the Fort Morgan Museum.

In July of 1991, Smithweck was invited by the AHC staff to meet with them at Fort Morgan to view the material he had on the lighthouse so they could copy his file. But upon his arrival, he found a different attitude and they were not interested in any material he had to offer. He recalled, “I left Fort Morgan very disappointed and dismayed by their attitude toward the project.”

Things changed again in 2003. The lighthouse was again disassembled and taken down and moved to long-term storage at Robinson Iron in Alexander City, Alabama. To dispel the public’s concern over the missing lighthouse, a sign was placed at the Fort indicating that it was the intention of the Governor of Alabama to have the lighthouse restored and soon back in place. Today, as well as the lighthouse being gone, even the sign has disappeared.

Although the iron lighthouse is now in a sad state of deterioration, Scott Howell, of Robinson Iron, says that through the use of modern restoration techniques and materials, the Mobile Point Rear Range Lighthouse can be restored and replaced at Fort Morgan.

However, who will take the initiative to save the historic lighthouse? In an article about Fort Morgan in the June 25, 1995 edition of the Baldwin Press Register on page 12, Blanton Blankenship, the Cultural Resource Manager of Fort Morgan at the time, stated, “The Mobile Point Lighthouse tower, built in 1872, is now a key feature of the fort.” That was then, but what about now?

Smithweck says, “The tower was restored as Alabama’s contribution to the celebration of the 200th Anniversary of America’s lighthouses in 1989. Therefore, there appears to be no incentive for the Alabama Historical Commission to become interested in the restoration project again.” He recalled how it took almost 20 years then to restore the Mobile Point Rear Range Lighthouse and he hopes it won’t take another 20 years to do it again. We also have to wonder.

We believe that the Alabama Historical Commission made a misguided decision to restore the Mobile Middle Bay Lighthouse where its sits, exposed to the elements, and where it is highly unlikely that it will be ever opened to the general public and school groups. Also, can the AHC be trusted to follow through on their long term cash commitment to Mobile Middle Bay Lighthouse, a lighthouse that sits out in the water, when they have not made any effort that we know of, to restore and re-erect the Mobile Point Rear Range Lighthouse which is a land-based lighthouse?

For additional related stories, please refer to: “Misguided Bureaucrats Reject Moving Middle Bay Lighthouse” in the March 2010 issue of Lighthouse Digest and “The Light of Love,” in the July 2007 issue of Lighthouse Digest.

This story appeared in the June 2010 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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