Dauphin Island, AL
Archive of Historical Data, Books, Maps
And Other Materials
"Sand Island Light
Built On Sand"
By Richard Clayton
Lying within the state of Alabama, Mobile
Bay is an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico. The mouth is formed by the
Fort Morgan peninsula on the eastern side and Dauphin Island, a
barrier island on the western side. Mobile Bay is 31 miles long
and 24 miles wide. It is the only entrance to the port of Mobile
at its northwestern end.
Roughly three miles offshore from the primary
Mobile Bay entrance is a place called Sand Island. In the early
1800's it measured approximately 400 acres in size and was a distinct
hazard to ships entering the mouth of the bay.
The logical way,
in Washington, DC, to warn shipping of a hazard was to build a lighthouse
on it; even when the locals warned against building a house on sand.
The first one, built in 1838, was destroyed
in the Civil War. In 1873, the replacement was completed on a stone
foundation as a Brownstone, conical tower rising to a height of
131 feet. It had a second order Fresnel lens.
Sand Island itself faced continuous erosion,
to the point where granite blocks were being added to the island
to try and stave off the destruction of the light. Also, on the
island was a boat house and a two-story keeper's home for the families.
The annual report from the Lighthouse Board,
for the year 1899, stated that the island was quickly washing away.
The keepers at that time were Hans J.G. Olsen and his assistant
Neils Nilson. They both came from Norway. In 1901, Mr. Olsen was
transferred and Mr. Nilson was promoted to Keeper. His assistant
was Thomas Sweeney. In 1903, Sweeney was replaced by Mathias W.
Streckert who, in 1905, was replaced by Andrew Hansen, another Norwegian.
A tropical depression formed in the southwestern
Caribbean Sea on September 19, 1906, and slowly intensified to a
tropical storm the next day headed across the Gulf of Mexico.
The following notations were entered in
the logbook by Keeper Nilson:
September 25, 1906: Left the station in the
Schooner Reflector at 2 pm for Alabama Port to get provisions.
Sept 26th: During the day and night heavy S.E.
Hurricane washed and destroyed the Light Station, the tower remaining.
The Assistant Keeper Andrew Hansen and
his wife Emma lost their lives.
Keeper weather bound at Bark Bolery.
As it swept by Sand Island, it was a category
2 storm with winds at about 110mph and it came ashore at Biloxi.
It was reported to be the worst storm they had seen in 170 years.
When a wind direction was given, such as a S.E. Hurricane, it
meant that the wind came out of the Southeast and was blowing
to the northwest.
Sept 27th: The weather moderate. Keeper trying
to hire a boat to proceed to the station.
Sept 30th: Keeper reported to the Lighthouse
Office at Mobile.
October 10th: Mr. Charles Thompson arrived
at the station for duty at Sand Island Light. The new assistant,
Charles, was the son of William Thompson the former keeper of
the Mobile Point Light.
May 3, 1909: Mathius W. Strickert arrived and
took charge of the station as Keeper Nilson was being transferred
to Round Island Light in Mississippi.
When local residents of an area refer
to a hurricane, they are speaking of the violent, stormy weather
system that brings torrential rains, and destructive, high velocity
winds of over 74 miles-per-hour. A hurricane is made up of three
o The eye is the calm region found to the center of the hurricane.
Conditions at the eye are dry and not very windy…giving a false
sense that the storm is over.
o The eye wall surrounds the eye and is made up of thick cumulonimbus
clouds. Here winds are most intense and the rainfall heaviest.
o The rain bands are made up of many thunderstorms circulating
out from the eye.
These storms provide the energy needed
by the eye wall.
Ten years later, in 1916, M.W. Strickert
was still the Head Keeper, the 1st Asst. Keeper was M. Brown and
the 2nd Asst. was O.H. Beadnell.
A hurricane struck on July 15th and the
Keepers maintained the light continuously, even though the shaking
of the tower was so violent that it threw half the water out of
a bucket in the watch room under the lantern. They could not keep
the Incandescent Oil Vapor lamp burning and substituted a wick-style
lamp. The damage was primarily to the island, although the boathouse
To repair the island another 2,700 tons
of rock was needed, each weighing one to four tons. The keepers
were still living crunched into the base of the tower as a dwelling.
There had not been a suitable place for them since the 1906 hurricane.
Thus the keeper's and the assistant's families lived on the mainland.
On September 9, 1919, the fourth most
intensive and deadly storm of the 20th Century passed near Key
West. Ten vessels were lost at sea accounting for more than 500
deaths. The hurricane continued westward and built to a category
4 with a wind velocity of 131 to 155 mph.
The hurricane had continued westward from
Mobil Bay and had struck Corpus Christi in South Texas as a Category
Four with a wind velocity of 145 miles per hour.
In the February 1st Lighthouse Service
Bulletin issued by the Lighthouse Bureau in Washington, DC, the
following article appeared: "On January 17 the superintendent
of the eighth district received information that Sand Island Light
Station, Ala., was out on the night of January 16-17, and that
a landing party had found the station deserted. Immediately on
receipt of this information, the superintendent issued instructions
to other keepers in the vicinity to proceed to the station and
assume charge, they arriving on the morning of January 18.
An entry in the journal at the light station
showed that John M. Reynolds, Keeper, and William L. Emerson,
first assistant had left on January 16 for Fort Morgan to meet
another assistant keeper recently employed. The lighthouse tender
Camellia left for Sand Island and made a search outside in the
Gulf and along the south shores of Dauphin, Petit Bois, and Horn
Islands. Then along the inside of Mississippi Sound to Dauphin
Island, where inquiries were made without hearing anything of
the missing keepers. The tender again searched along the south
shores of Dauphin, Petit Bois, Horn and Ship Islands, but without
success. It is believed that the motor launch with the missing
keepers was either swamped in the breakers to the westward of
the station or blown out to sea.
The mystery of the missing keepers brings
to mind several unanswered questions which can only bring speculation.
Why did Reynolds and Emerson leave the station unmanned? Was it
because the first assistant was going to stay ashore while the
Reynolds was going to take the new assistant back with him? There
would have been no radio or telephone at the Sand Island Station
warning them of the massive hurricane blowing their way. But,
they were three miles out in the Gulf with an unrestricted view
of the horizon.
The Sand Island Light was deactivated
eleven years later. Since that time, the pile of granite blocks
has managed to provide a secure footing for the lighthouse that
now sits on an area of less than one acre.
The second order Fresnel lens was removed
from the tower in 1971 and is on display at Fort Morgan. The plight
of the Sand Island Lighthouse is debatable. The sandy islands
have since eroded leaving the tower surrounded by water. Lighthouse
Digest has placed it on the endangered list.
Editor's note: A debt of gratitude is
owed to Jim Hall from Dauphin Island, AL for the very valuable
research material that he was willing to share with this writer.
Also, to Warren Lee who wrote the Sand Island Light House Chronicles.
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