As lighthouses go, the sentinel on Georgia’s Cockspur Island is diminutive, measuring only 46 feet from base to the top of its cupola.
But don’t underestimate this structure, which has endured high tides, hurricanes, waves from ever-growing container ships, careless individuals, vandals and – for a deafening 30 hours – the bombardment of nearby Fort Pulaski during the Civil War.
The Cockspur light’s masonry base was built in the shape of a ship’s prow to deflect the forces that have worn away at her, consuming much of the small island that serves as its foundation. And while her light was extinguished more than a century ago, the beloved beacon exudes charm for boaters and those making the trek on U.S. 80 from Savannah to Tybee Island.
“She really is a tough lady,” said Harvey Ferrelle, head of the Friends of Cockspur Island Lighthouse, a group that works with the National Park Service staff at Fort Pulaski National Monument – which manages the lighthouse -- to preserve and protect the structure.
|Robert Knox Sneden map (Library of Congress)|
Remarkably, the lighthouse suffered little or no damage during the April 10, 1862, Union bombardment of Fort Pulaski. Crews manning 36 guns on 11 batteries stretching along the western end of Tybee Island likely used the lighthouse for sighting as they pounded away at the fort located about 1 mile beyond.
“Not much point to aiming at the lighthouse,” said Charlie Crawford, who as president of the Georgia Battlefields Association has led tours of Civil War sites in the Savannah area. “If the Federals could capture the port, the lighthouse would be useful.”
While the lighthouse weathered the war and helped mariners for a couple more generations, age and exposure to elements have taken a toll.
A new round of maintenance and restoration is expected to begin this Monday (Dec. 7). Ferrelle said he expects professionals and volunteers to repoint and clean interior bricks, put in a new door and seal glass and other fittings. Work on weakened wrought-iron railing will take place later.
Fort Pulaski’s Joel Cadoff said the friends group raised $25,000 for lighthouse protection through a Centennial Challenge Grant and the NPS matched it. A full restoration of the lighthouse would require much more funding.
The help can’t come soon enough for the Cockspur Island Lighthouse and island, which were recently closed to the public. NPS officials cited the precarious ecological situation and increased vandalism.
|Fort Pulaski is a mile beyond the lighthouse (NPS)|
In 2013, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers placed boulders and rip-rap on the island to counter tides and higher shipping waves. The stabilization project also helped establish a base for oyster bed restoration, with the distribution of about three tons of oyster shells.
“If left alone, they will reproduce and the stack will form new oysters,” said Ferrelle. “People have been trampling on the oysters we left there.”
Ferrelle, who operates a boat-based tour company, said before the closure people were seen hanging over the sides or sitting on top of the cupola.
Some people who paddled up to the island at low tide disregarded signs and went inside. A fall from the top, Ferrelle said, would have a single consequence: “They won’t get hurt. They’ll get dead.”
Eventually, officials would like to see the lighthouse and island reopen to visitors. The goal, Ferrelle said, is to “maintain her as a historic place and a treasure. It’s not just a toy you go out and goof around with.”
War comes to coastal Savannah
The South Channel of the Savannah River was the prime gateway to Savannah in its early years. One brick tower, used as a landmark, was built on Cockspur Island between 1837 and 1839. A major upgrade came about a decade later when an illuminated station was built. That tower has a focal plane 25 feet above sea level, according to the NPS.
A hurricane leveled the lighthouse in 1854 and a new tower was rebuilt the next year. The dawn of the Civil War brought a temporary extinguishment of its light.
|Remnants of Battery Halleck (Picket photo)|
Then the war itself came to Cockspur Island, home to Fort Pulaski.
The Union’s strategy was to put a chokehold on Southern commerce by controlling ports and coastal areas, including this area next to the Atlantic Ocean. Federal soldiers landed at Tybee Island and set about preparing for an attack on Fort Pulaski, a brick guardian just a few miles to the west.
Capt. Quincy A. Gillmore, a Federal engineer officer, began the bombardment on April 10, 1862, after Col. Charles H. Olmstead refused to surrender.
“The Federal batteries were 1,500 to 4,000 yards away from the fort,” Crawford said. “Part of Battery Halleck is still discernible on the south side of the road. Had the Federals chosen to aim at the lighthouse, the closest batteries would have been about 700 yards from it.”
The Confederate garrison at Fort Pulaski would learn first-hand about advances in technology.
“When Fort Pulaski was built (1830s, with Robert E. Lee as one of the principal engineers), the rifled gun was not around, so thick masonry walls were the best type of fortification, and the distance to Tybee Island would prevent any 1830s-era gun from getting close enough to do significant damage,” said Crawford. “By 1862, the James Rifles blasted apart the walls relatively quickly.”
|Rifled shot pulverized Fort Pulaski (Picket photo)|
The situation steadily grew worse.
“When the breach on the southeast bastion allowed the Federals to shoot across the parade ground and start bouncing shells off the temporary wood wall in front of the powder magazine, Olmsted knew that a potentially catastrophic explosion was likely,” said Crawford. He surrendered on April 11.
Pulaski remained in Federal hands and the city fell in December 1864 in the closing months of the conflict. About a year after the war’s end, on April 25, 1866, the beacon was relit and painted white for continued use as an navigational aid.
A storm in 1881 destroyed the keeper’s residence and the surge filled the lighthouse interior with seawater. The plucky tower remained in duty for another three decades, but the writing was on its walls.
To accommodate large freighters, the Savannah port routed vessels to the deep, more navigable North Channel. Effective June 1, 1909, the beacon light was snuffed. Its Fresnel light is long gone.
Today, an overlook trail offers Pulaski visitors the closest look at the lighthouse.
|Stairs lack safety rail in lighthouse (NPS photo)|
Taking it for granted
Nature’s assault on the lighthouse has continued, with officials fighting back against the effects of erosion and shipworms on wooden support timbers.
In 2008, the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation put the lighthouse on its annual list of 10 "Places in Peril."
Cadoff said short-term needs include work on the exterior envelope, floor surface, stair, interior wall cleaning, repointing, and all other metal and wood work conservation. Ferrelle, of the nonprofit friends group, said he expects a new, secure door will be placed in the structure. The interior stairway has no railing, another reason officials have been concerned about safety.
Concerns about erosion extend to the wharf area north of the fort itself. A recent project brought in tons of dredged sand.
Savannah Technical College is helping in the latest lighthouse effort, and the Savannah Community Foundation assists the friends group in fund-raising.
The friends group has been in existence officially since 2008. Ferrelle, a lifelong Savannah resident, said it became apparent the Cockspur Island Lighthouse needed more than a dash of TLC.
“It is one of those things you take for granted,” he said. “It is just part of the scenery. It became a great place to go fishing.”
He said he is concerned about a trend of higher tides that hammer away at the tower’s foundation. Water comes up over the doorway a couple of times a year. A better door and sealed bricks will help fight the effects, he said.
Until deeper federal and private funding is secured, work on the lighthouse sometimes feels like triage.
“We have to do maintenance that will keep her in good state while looking out for the long term,” said Ferrelle.