You Asked, We Answered: What’s the History of Tybee Island’s Lighthouse?
If you’ve ever flipped through Tybee Island’s visitor guide, you know that the local lighthouse is a pretty big deal. The monumental beacon stands 154 feet tall and is considered to be one of the quintessential sights on the island. But just what makes it so special? We’ll tell you.
Tybee Island’s Lighthouse is the oldest and tallest lighthouse in Georgia. In fact, it’s one of the most intact historic lighthouses remaining in America to this day. However, it wasn’t always in such great shape.
In 1732, General James Oglethorpe ordered the construction of the lighthouse tower. The building’s development was completed in 1736, but was felled by a storm in 1741. The tower was rebuilt the following year by a man named Thomas Sumner. This time around, though, workers used stone and wood. The lighthouse tower was not illuminated either time — rather, the structure sported a very tall flag pole instead.
After the second lighthouse was swept away by encroaching tides and erosion, a third tower was erected in its place in 1773 by John Mullryne. Made of sturdy bricks and wooden stairs and landings, this base remains intact within the current lighthouse.
In 1790, Georgia ratified the Constitution and yielded the lighthouse to the federal government. The lighthouse was then fitted with reflectors and candles, but soon was upgraded to oil lamps. In order to form a navigation range for ships entering the narrow Savannah River, a second tower was added to the site in 1822.
In 1857, both towers received Fresnel lenses. During the Civil War, Confederate forces burned the lighthouse but removed the precious lens when they retreated to nearby Fort Pulaski. The fourth establishment of the Tybee Island lighthouse began in 1866, but was delayed when a cholera outbreak struck the area.
When the new tower was finally constructed, it was built upon the first 60 feet of the pre-existing tower. This elevated the finished height to its current 154 feet, and the tower was equipped with a larger Fresnel lens.
But, as luck would have it, the lighthouse was severely impacted by a hurricane in 1871. The damage was so serious that the exasperated crew decided to replace the wooden elements of the tower with iron in the hopes that sturdy materials would stave off any future disasters.
Next, keepers dwellings were installed on the light station’s five-acre grounds. In 1933, the tower was fitted with electricity and the lighthouse reduced their staff to a single light keeper. The beacon became automated in 1972.
The Tybee Island Historical Society began a major restoration project in 1999, taking the illustrious structure under their wings. Shortly thereafter, in 2002, the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act allowed this altruistic group of locals and historians to repaint the tower in the 1916-1966 black-white-black daymark and open for public tours of the lighthouse and the impressive grounds.
To this day, the Tybee Island lighthouse’s original beacon shines brightly, beckoning visitors to marvel at her infamous past and present beauty.
Have you been to the lighthouse? You can climb all 178 steps, take photos overlooking the entire island and peruse the on-location museum and gift shop! For more information, click here.
Jess Brannen is Visit Tybee’s Social Media Coordinator. She graduated from Armstrong State University with her BA in English and Professional Communications. Jess is a Savannah native and loves playing with Sir Charles Barkley, her neurotic golden retriever, and watching reruns of Martha Stewart’s cooking shows while eating chocolate.