Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Cockspur lighthouse at Fort Pulaski emerges from scaffolding after months of preservation work. Here's what was done on beacon

(All photos are recent and from Fort Pulaski National Monument)
Fort Pulaski National Monument near Savannah, Ga., this week completed a five-month project aimed at protecting the small but resilient Cockspur Island Lighthouse from moisture and tides.

The 46-foot structure, built in 1855, has endured high tides, hurricanes, waves from ever-growing container ships, vandals and – for a deafening 30 hours – the April 1862 bombardment of nearby Fort Pulaski during the Civil War. 

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 Pulaski, a brick guardian to the west.

Remarkably, the lighthouse suffered little or no damage. Crews manning 36 guns on 11 batteries stretching along the western end of Tybee likely used the lighthouse for sighting as they pounded away at the fort. The Confederate garrison, worried that exploding shells might reach munitions, surrendered within a day.

Louvered transoms on door, windows allow ventilation
The park over the years has undertaken work aimed at protecting the beacon. The Picket has communicated with Emily Forlenza, exhibits specialist and acting facility operations specialist at Fort Pulaski National Monument, about the project. Here are her emailed responses to questions, edited for brevity.

Q. Would you mind briefly summarizing all the work was done?

A. For this project, the masonry tower, stairs, keel, window and door openings, and interior of the Cockspur Island Lighthouse were cleaned, chiseled and repointed. These efforts were undertaken due to the damage that this structure sustained from tidal action. The mortar that was used was a match to what we believe was used historically, based on lab testing, material sampling, and test patches used in various areas. Most of the efforts for masonry repointing took place on the exterior of the structure, as that is where the most wind and water action is seen. The interior masonry also saw this repair work as well, but it was not as extensive. Additionally, the door and windows on the structure were replaced using materials and a configuration that are believed to be the configuration and material of the original fixtures. The only update to these new additions was to add a louvered transom instead of a fanlight above the door and windows. This was done to allow for passive ventilation through the structure, since it is closed most of the year due to its remote location. In total, we replaced one entry door and transom, three 6-light windows with transoms, and two porthole windows. 

Q. In October, you mentioned work “toward getting the light back on.” What do you mean?

A. Since this lighthouse is located in a major shipping channel, we want to make sure that no vessel would confuse this with an active aid to navigation (ATON.) We are planning to work closely with the Coast Guard to get the light back up in the lighthouse, facing out in the direction where ships will not be able to confuse their navigation. We are hoping this will come shortly, within the next few months. (The lighthouse was last used as a lighted beacon in 1909)

Q. Did anything require total or partial replacement?

A. The door and windows all required total replacement. We did not have a functional door at all, and what was in place for all of the openings was neither original nor historic. 

Q. What painting was done?

The cupola of the lighthouse was painted with a rust reformer and black metal paint in order to restore its appearance. The old cupola is located in front of the visitor center of Fort Pulaski, having been removed due to its state of deterioration in 1995. (See comments section below for why exterior of lighthouse was not painted)

Q. Will the lighthouse remain closed to the public?

A. This is a topic of discussion among Fort Pulaski staff, but for the foreseeable future it will remain closed.  

Q. How did the lighthouse fare during the recent super high tides? I know higher water levels have been of concern for a time.

A. The lighthouse itself held up very well, as she always does. None of our new repair work showed any sign of failure, and the new door and windows we put on look as good as they did the day we put them on.

Q. How will you regulate or manage moisture issues?

A. As stated above, the passive ventilation that is offered by the louvered transoms is our main mitigation against the stagnant damp air that would typically cause issues inside the structure. 

Q. You anticipated the project would cost about $150,000. Did that prove to be true?

A. Yes, we came in right around our anticipated budget. (Funding for the fabrication of the door and windows came from a grant given to the Friends of Cockspur Island Lighthouse by the Tybee Island Historical Society, which was matched by NPS Centennial Challenge funding.)

Q. Can you tell me about the replacement mortar being historically accurate? How so?

A. Historically, the mortar used for the lighthouse would have had a heavy makeup of natural cement due to its location being heavy impacted by the tides. During testing, it was determined that this was true. The park then did test patches to make sure that the mortar was going to hold up in this area. Even though the mortar was historically accurate, we still wanted to make sure that this would be the best fit for the structure. 

Q. What work was done by NPS staff and what was done by contractors?

A. The National Park Service provided all of the day labor and craft skills required to repoint the structure, paint the cupola, and install the door and windows. The door and windows were fabricated by Savannah Millworks, a local company here in Savannah. The scaffolding that was constructed around the structure was also contracted out, by Sunbelt Rentals. 

Q. Any hitches or pleasant surprises or finds during the work?

A. The most fascinating part of working with historic structures in these historic settings is coming up with unique ways to start these projects off. The planning process was the most interesting part initially, because we needed to figure out how we were going to get sturdy enough scaffolding around a structure that was surrounded by huge boulders (revetment, to protect the island from erosion) while at the same time ensuring that the structure would be protected during tidal surges from the scaffolding swaying or moving in any way. We had to figure out how best to get a crew of 5-6 people out to the lighthouse every day safety and efficiently, while factoring in tides that would change where we could get the crew on and off the island.

And probably the most unexpected hitch: the crew shared the lighthouse with a very disgruntled barn owl for about a month, before the owl decided it was time to find a new home. He did continue to torment the crew each day upon their arrival until he moved out. 

Q. Any other thoughts on the project?

A. This project gave us an incredible amount of information that we are going to be using to develop future projects for the preservation of this structure. 

Projects like these are essential for future project development. It is such a unique experience to be directly involved in work like this, and I am thankful that my crew and I were able to take part in preserving this structure for future generations. 

Click here for previous Picket coverage on the lighthouse


  1. Why wasn't the whole thing repainted white? Seems like it would have protected the mortar and such to have a coat of paint on it.

    1. Emily Forlenza of the park has this reply for your good question:
      "The coat of paint that is currently on the lighthouse is unfortunately a coat of latex paint that was improperly applied to the structure during a previous repair campaign. This coating is not historically accurate, and it is close to impossible to get off without causing more damage to the structure. We have tried many methods of removal, including hand scraping, steaming, chemical removal, etc. but we found that the best way to allow for the coating to wear away is naturally. Applying a coating on top of this would have also proven to be detrimental to the structure, as adding a coat on top of the latex without proper preparation of the subsurface would have 'suffocated' the masonry even more. As much as we would have loved to see a white lighthouse, we will need for time to play the role in preservation."

  2. Love seeing this little lighthouse as we go to Tybee