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Repairs Begin For Lighthouse
Near Dauphin Island
By KATHERINE SAYRE
Staff Reporter Sunday, August 10, 2008
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the sun crept into the sky over the Gulf of Mexico, an odd scene
unfolded around the Sand Island Lighthouse, about three miles from
Three cement trucks were lined up on a barge, floating in the water,
as concrete was pumped through a hose into a frame surrounding the
135-year-old tower's base. The repairs last week were part of recent
efforts to stabilize Alabama's oldest lighthouse and keep it from
collapsing into Gulf waters. Experts have said it would take millions
of dollars to fully restore the lighthouse - once a beacon of light
at the entrance to Mobile Bay - and make it accessible to visitors.
Sand Island Lighthouse, constructed in 1873, has survived decades
of damage from salty waves, strong winds and erosion. Even its namesake
island migrated westward with the currents, abandoning the tower
that now stands alone. Pilings from a destroyed house still stand
on the rocks.
"When I was growing up, it was just the one house left, but it used
to be a little village out here," said Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff
Deactivated by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1933, the lighthouse remained
in federal hands until the town of Dauphin Island, in partnership
with the Alabama Lighthouse Association, took possession of it in
After weathering abuse from hurricanes Ivan and Katrina in recent
years, repairs funded by more than $1 million from the Federal Emergency
Management Agency began last month. The work is scheduled to be
finished by mid-September.
Work crews have poured a concrete supporting ring that, after it
dries, will be dyed to match the red-brown color of the original
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The tower stretches 126 feet into the air - about double the length
of a bowling alley. Tucked inside is an iron staircase that generations
of lighthouse watchers climbed to reach the galley on top.
Experts have said the only reason Sand Island Lighthouse, and many
other lighthouses across the nation, have survived decades of neglect
is the quality of their original construction. Sand Island Lighthouse
is rooted by 171 wood pilings, surrounded by a concrete wall. Engineers
studying the lighthouse have said the foundation appears to be in
good condition. "Those pilings will never go away as long as they
stay in water," said John Cain, president of Satsuma-based Remedial
Services Inc., which is working on the project.
The current work will also include repairs to damaged bricks by
a masonry company, officials said. Strong winds from Hurricane Ivan
slammed some of the boulders into the lighthouse, causing damage
to the bricks, officials said. In an effort to prevent that in future
storms, the boulders will be tied together using steel wiring.
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The project is being overseen by Mobile-based Thompson Engineering,
which conducted a study of the lighthouse's condition and what it
would take to bring it into use as a tourist attraction.
The report recommends several major repairs:
Fix vertical cracks and add steel rings inside to bind the tower
Rebuild and protect the island where the tower is built.
Repair bricks to prevent minor cracks from growing.
Restore the staircase, landings, handrails and copper roof.
According to the report, a 1.3-acre island with sand surrounded
by a rock wall could be built around the lighthouse, allowing visitors
to dock and disembark. That plan would cost $36 million, including
restoration of the tower.
Another long-term restoration option would be to add more rocks
around the lighthouse to protect the foundation, which in total
would cost $15.9 million, according to the report. Collier said
the town is considering several funding options, including a statewide
fundraising campaign and grants.
A shorter, 55-foot lighthouse was built on the island in 1838, replaced
years later by a tower nearly three times its size in 1858. Confederate
soldiers during the Civil War discovered that Union troops were
using the tower, located between Fort Gaines and Fort Morgan, to
spy on them. Confederates used explosives to blow up the tower in
Jim Hall, board member of the Alabama Lighthouse Association, said
the lighthouse was used as a guiding light to the ships traveling
in and out of the busy port of Mobile Bay, carrying bales of cotton,
bananas and other cargo.
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"Mobile distinctly has a very rich maritime history," Hall said.
"When a ship from Central America finally saw that lighthouse, they
were very grateful that they hit the right spot." In the future,
Hall said, the association would also like to have a new light installed
at the top to once again shine on the entrance to Mobile Bay.