Dauphin Island, AL
Archive of Historical Data, Books, Maps
And Other Materials
of Sand Island,
Mouth of Mobile Bay, Alabama
Compiled by Jim Hall, December, 2008
Today's Sand Island Light House is
located off shore at the mouth of Mobile Bay, bounded on the east by Mobile
Point (on Fort Morgan peninsula), 2.6 miles away, and 3.4 miles to the
west by Dauphin Island.
The island's size exceeded 400 acres in the 1800s,
but today, it is has shrunk to less than one acre. The first site chosen was
the nearest spot of dry land to the Mobile Bar when the United States took control
over Alabama in 1819. The island has earned a dubious reputation as fickle
and intinerant - eroding, shifting, dividing, and eventually
EARLY MOBILE BAY ENTRANCE MARKER AND LIGHT -
U.S. Treasury Department officials, convinced that the light from Mobile Point
(the tip of Ft. Morgan peninsula, east side of the mouth of Mobile Bay) somehow
arched over the horizon makeing it visible 30 miles, orginally believed a light
on Sand Island could never be of any value. A tall iron spindle, visible an
advertised six miles to sea, marked the island in 1830|
Mariners complained about the inadequacy of the marker. On March 3, 1837,
Congress responded with an allotment of $10,000 for a lighthouse on Sand
Island. The lighthouse, built by Winslow Lewis, rose to a height of fifty-five
feet and was fitted with fourteen lamps backed by sixteen-inch reflectors.
Lewis completed the project under budget, returning $1,101 to the government.
John McCloud served as the first keeper of the lighthouse, which was outshone
by the more powerful Mobile Point Lighthouse and was thus considered a
THE SECOND LIGHTHOUSE -
A coast survey in 1848 reported, "Sand Island has lost a strip
the whole length of the eastern shore from 66 to 100 yards in
width". Year after the year, the eastern end of the island was
slowing being whittled away. By the early 1850s, it was apparent
that a new lighthouse was needed for the island, and this time
a first-class tower was to be built. Under the direction of Army
Engineer Danville Leadbetter, a conical brick tower with a height
of nearly 200 feet was constructed on the island in 1858. The
lighthouse was the tallest to ever be built on the Gulf Coast
and displayed a first-order Fresnel lens.
CIVIL WAR ACTION -
Sadly, this magnificent tower had a short life. The Civil War
broke out when the lighthouse had been in use for just over two
years. The Confederates removed the nine-foot-tall lens and placed
it in storage before Union forces gained control of the island.
On December 20, 1862, Union blockaders installed a fourth-order
lens in the tower, which also served as a lookout for spying on
Irritated by the proximity of the enemy, a band of Confederates
led by John W. Glenn rowed from Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island
out to Sand Island. Before being challenged by the guns of the
USS Pembina, the intruders had torched several frame buildings
near the lighthouse. Glenn swore that he
Graduate West Point,
Capt. US Army when
building Sand Island.
would return to the island,
and "tumble the Light House down in their teeth". On the morning
of February 23, 1863, roughly a month after his previous visit
to the island, Glenn made good on his promise.
After placing seventy
pounds of gun powder under the tower, he lit a fuse and retreated
amidst a downpour of bricks. Glenn's report on the tower's destruction
was addressed to none other than Danville Leadbetter, the builder
of the tower, who was now Brigadier General in the Confederate
Shortly after Admiral Farragut entered Mobile Bay, a fourth-order
lens elevated only 48 feet above sea level again marked Sand Island,
this time atop a substantial but temporary wood tower adfacent to the
ruins. Local lighthouse engineer Max F. Bonzano asked Washington for the
original tower plans so he could rebuild. Exigencies of war
postponed any work.
THE THIRD (TODAY'S) LIGHTHOUSE -
The tower was constructed using a popular plan of the 1870s that
was also used for the Carolina lighthouses at Bodie Island, Currituck,
The classical brick tower was built on a foundation of 171 pilings
overlaid with twelve feet of cement. The lighthouse rose to a
height of 132 feet and was constructed 670 feet northwest of the
previous site. The new light was activated on September 1, 1873,
and shortly thereafter, a substantial two-story keepers' house
SURVIVING NATURE'S FORCES -
Island Lighthouse circa 1892
"The Sea Encroaches"
Photo, US National Archives
Erosion continued unabated along the eastern shore of the island. By 1880,
the foundation of the 1858 tower was awash. Jetties were extended from
the island by the US Lighthouse Board in an attempt to retard the erosion,
but by 1888, only 10 feet of sand separated the lighthouse from the Gulf.
Rather than abandon the majestic lighthouse, 1,600 tons of granite were
placed around the tower in 1889. A decade later, 6,548 more tons were
added. The lighthouse clung tenaciously to the eastern end of the island.
THE KEEPERS, THEIR WIVES AND THEIR HOUSES -
Before the keepers' dwelling was lost to erosion, it was torn down in
1901 and replaced with a six-room dwelling.
Two keepers and their wives were assigned to the lighthouse...
Unaware a huge storm was in the Gulf of Mexico, a few days
before the 1906 hurricane struck, one of the keepers went
to shore. The hurricane shut down operations of the light,
the tower remained intact, and the remaining keeper and
wives were gone...never to be found. A lighthouse inspector
sent the following telegram describing the damage: "Sand
Island light out. Island washed away. Dwelling gone. Keepers
not to be found."
Replacement keepers were destined to live in the base of
the tower until a new dwelling was built. Unfortunately,
for them, this did not happen until 1925, when a 25 x 30
foot dwelling was built atop twelve cast-iron piles that
were secured in a concrete base adjacent to the lighthouse.
Visit Sand Island
Photo, US National Archives
By 1908, the tower stood on a man-made mountain of rip-rap,
separated from the retreating island (to the west) by a
quarter of a mile.
During the early 1900s, several more tons of rip-rap was
placed around the lighthouse.
On January 17, 1919, reports were made that the Sand Island
Lighthouse had not been lit the previous night. An investigation
team was dispatched to the island, where they read in the
station's log book that the two keepers had gone ashore
to pick up a second assistant keeper. It was concluded that
the keepers must have been swamped in breakers or blown
out to sea, as they never reached shore. There are those,
today, who suspect the keepers simply quit and stole the
In 1921, the lighthouse was automated. The light was deactivated
eleven years later, 1932.
Since that time, the pile of granite blocks has managed
to provide a secure footing for the lighthouse without further
aid from man. The second-order Fresnel
was removed by the US Coast Guard from the tower
in 1971, and then placed, on loan, for exhibit in the Fort
Morgan museum the following year.
the 1925 keeper's dwelling
, which stood on iron pilings next
to the tower, burned down.
SAVING THE HISTORIC STRUCTURE -
Before restoration work could begin on the lighthouse, it
had to be transferred from the federal government. In 2001,
after nearly four years of consideration, the Alabama Historical
Commission rejected an offer of the lighthouse, reasoning
that it would cost too much to save.
Fortunately, the Town of Dauphin Island municipal government
stepped forward and obtained ownership of the lighthouse
from the federal government in 2003.
In 2006, a safety trip was made to the lighthouse to devise
a safe manner for landing at the lighthouse and for climbing
the tower in preparation for a planned engineering study.
Funding for the study was supplied by the Alabama LightHouse
Association. The Town of Dauphin Island awarded the engineering
study to Thompson Engineering, in Mobile. Moving the lighthouse
to nearby Dauphin Island was explored, but not recommended.
A comperhensive plan with several options was presented,
including reccomendations for stabilization and complete
Based on the engineering study by Thompson Engineering released
in 2007, and, using FEMA hurricane recovery funds in excess
of one million dollars, boulders around the lighthouse were
rearranged and tied together with stainless steel cables,
a ring of reinforced cement was poured around the base of
the lighthouse, and missing bricks and mortar were added
to the tower during the summer of 2008.
This stabilization work should keep the lighthouse standing
until a long-term restoration plan can proceed. The Alabama
Lighthouse Association continues its support for the Town
of Dauphin Island for the restoration of this historical
landmark, one of the last symbols of Mobile Bay's rich maritime
Lighthouses, Lightships, and the Gulf of Mexico,
Sand Island Lighthouse Chronicles, Lee, 1998.
Alabama LightHouse Association