Once Upon a Time on an Island

Published 11:00 am Sunday, July 7, 2024

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At one time, my husband and I lived on Johnsons Island in Lake Erie. When we moved to the mainland, we lived in a very small town, Marblehead, population 352. I know this number because, when my daughter was born, they added her to the population number on the sign.

Our house was about three hundred feet from the Marblehead Lighthouse and every evening the beacon would shine in our windows. Ever since caring for this tower and taking it into my heart, I fell in love with the romance of lighthouses.

On a trip to Georgia’s Golden Isles and seeing the lighthouses, brought these feelings back to me. I learned a lot about the islands and the light towers. I thought that perhaps, you too, would enjoy their stories.

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So, let’s take a trip to Georgia’s beautiful and largely wild and free from man’s destruction, barrier islands. First, we will visit Sapelo, an island with a lot of history. We will be taking a ferry across and enjoying a luncheon with the original descendants of the Guale Indians that still live on this island.

Sapelo Island is the fourth largest of Georgia’s barrier islands and is also one of the highest, with parts of it reaching 25 feet above sea level. Four thousand years ago, humans lived, fished and hunted on Sapelo. Over the years, the island has seen its share of missionaries, explorers, would be developers and environmentalists. Its name is adapted from that of the 16th century Spanish missionaries, who built a convent and called it: San Jose de Zapala.

An early owner of the island, as well as of Ossabaw and St. Catherines, was Mary Musgrove, the part Creek Indian woman who married an Englishman, Thomas Bosomworth. She also acted as an interpreter for General James Oglethorpe.

The Creeks used Sapelo for hunting and fishing, but in 1757, ceded the island to England. Several owners controlled Sapelo over the next decades, including some Frenchmen who had fled the French Revolution.

The man who did much to change Sapelo was Thomas Spalding, who owned it during the first half of the nineteenth century. Besides harvesting its live oak trees, he grew sugar cane, and was the first planter in Georgia to do so. Also among his crops were Sea Island cotton and rice. He also dug ditches to drain the marshy areas and make them more manageable. In 1809, Spalding built a sugar mill out of tabby, as well as his beautiful tabby house called the South End House, which the Department of Natural Resources still uses for conferences.

Although Spalding’s wife, Sarah, died in 1843, he continued to live on the island until his death in 1851. At that time, his son, Randolph Spalding, acquired the plantation, as well as his other holdings on nearby Little Sapelo and Cabretta Islands. The Spalding’s continued to live on Sapelo until 1861, when Union troops landed there and forced the family to head for the mainland. There were also many of their workers who were also taken to the mainland by the family. The troops did so much damage to the house, that it remained vacant until around 1900.

After the War Between the States, the Spaulding family and many of the workers, out of fear of the Union soldiers, returned to the island. At this time, Randolph Spalding deeded to these folks a 534-acre part of the island, which became Hog Hammock. That plot of land was named by the newly freed folks, after Sampson Hog, the man who took care of the Spalding’s animals. Some of these descendants still live in the Hog Hammock community and are in fact, the only private landowners on Sapelo.

Later owners on Sapelo Island included Howard Coffin, who was owner from 1912 to 1934, and R. J. Reynolds of the Reynolds Tobacco Company, who was owner from 1934 to his death in 1964.

Coffin rebuilt the Spalding mansion and added some Mediterranean type touches to the house. Now, this was his vacation retreat. While Coffin’s workers restored South End House, the family lived in Long Tabby, a temporary residence for ten years, which later became a guesthouse. Much later, it was turned into a vacation retreat for underprivileged children.

Other interesting houses are the identical structures, that Coffin built for two of his aunts. The women wanted to live on the island but disliked each other too much to live in one house. Coffin had to build them separate, and identical houses.

In 1934, Coffin sold Sapelo to tobacco heir, Richard J. Reynolds of Winston Salem, North Carolina. Reynolds, during his ownership of the island until his death, in 1964, kept updating the house. High ceilings in the rooms bring about turn of the century charm. There are large rooms with smaller rooms inside, which are like spaces where you can read and reflet, or just nap, throughout the mansion.

There is also a Garden Room, a Solarium and a billiard room. The house is also filled with art and tropical murals, painted in all the rooms. Throughout the grounds, are Florentine sculptures beneath the huge oaks.

Reynolds also donated land and facilities to the University of Georgia for marine research. Following Reynold’s death, the mansion and most of the island was obtained by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. There is also an airstrip that was built by Reynolds in the open spaces, where there once were cotton fields.

There is an enduring mystery that still remains on Sapelo. It is the origin of its shell rings. These three, donut shaped rings, are just off shore, rising as high as nine feet above sea level. They are composed of the shells from the ocean fish and the bones of animals that lived more than four thousand years ago. The largest of the three has a diameter of 255 feet!

Exactly what the rings were created for, is up for speculation and there are several theories. They could have been a military defense for the villages against enemies, especially barefoot ones, whose feet would be cut as they attempted to climb up the mounds of sharp-edged oysters, mussels, clam and crab shells. Possibly, they were used for village gatherings or for games. However, it is more likely they were simply a part of the local garbage dump for early Native Americans who lived in circular shaped villages and they did not have weekly pickups in their neighborhood.

No visit to Sapelo Island would be complete without a tour of the lighthouse.  It sets in the middle of acres of tall, marsh grasses, pristine beaches and gnarled coastal forests, on the very southern tip of Sapelo Island. It overlooks one of the wildest and most beautiful of places on Georgia’s eastern seaboard. This beautiful structure was the work of Winslow Lewis, who built many of the early light towers in America.

This brick and stone structure was completed in 1820. Painted with red and white stripes, it was an impressive 80 feet tall. Thus, it was very visible against the backdrop of the lush tidal marshes. Nearby, a keeper’s house was constructed. The total cost was around $40,000, quite a substantial sum back in those days. Also, this price included the lighting apparatus which was a patented lamp and reflector arrangement that Lewis had designed himself.

Not too many years after the completion of the lighthouse, the government upgraded it by raising the beacon 10 feet. Then, a fourth order Fresnel lens was installed. This was the best lens of its time and even by modern standards, it is an excellent lens.

In 1853, Alexander Hazzard became the first appointed lighthouse keeper. He served until early 1862. The tower at Sapelo Island stood straight, tall and invincible, showing the way into Doboy Sound. Remarkably, it sustained little damage during the War Between the States. Part of this was because the Confederate Army took away the lighting apparatus and this helped save the tower from the Union forces.

After the War, the island once again returned to nature. Except for a handful of lighthouse keepers and a small community of Guale folks, who once worked at growing sugar cane and cotton. However, in 1867, a hurricane did what the War did not. It severely damaged the structure requiring it to have extensive repairs and restoration done.

Once again, on October 2, 1898, the tower was brought to its knees during the most powerful hurricane to strike Georgia within the memory of the residents. The lower floors, as high up as 18 feet, were submerged in seawater for several hours. This undermined its foundation. The water also came up to the second floor of the keepers house. Plus, the gabled end of the house, was completely washed away and the interior was completely gutted. The storm also submerged the brick, oil house, which held 450 gallons of kerosene to burn the light.

When all of the structures were inspected, it was determined that the tower was now unsafe and the keepers house uninhabitable. A second lighthouse and keepers house needed to be built.

Sometime in the early 1900s, the lighthouse officials decided that the new lighthouse would be a steel skeleton type tower. This design would be best because it can resist the high winds and crashing waves that are generated by hurricanes.

This tower was 100 feet high. It was placed a few hundred yards from where the original tower was still standing. Supported by four iron legs that ran upwards from the bottom, this cast iron skeleton light had a tube which ran up the center that contained the staircase, which ran up to the lantern room.

Completed in 1913, this tower served for years without a serious incident. However, in 1933, it was deactivated. The light was dismantled, piece by piece, and moved to South Fox Island in Lake Michigan, where it is still serving today. All that remains on Sapelo, is the concrete slab where it stood and the remains of a collapsed dock, which was once used by the keepers.

There also were two keepers’ houses. These were taken down, their lumber sold for scrap and the bricks were used to create a protective wall for the old brick tower, which was covered with one and a half inches of concrete.

However, with the sharp decline in the amount of shipping in and out of the port of Darien, there was no longer a need for a lighthouse. Now, it remained uninhabited for more than a century.

The lighthouse keepers on Sapelo Island didn’t seem to stay there for very long because of its isolation. Most left before their term of a year was up. The only keeper to stay was James Cromley. He became keeper in 1873. A skilled cobbler, he reinforced his income by making boots for the men on the crews of the ships that docked near the island.

Being the keeper on Sapelo became a family heritage, as a member of the Cromley family served for 60 years. The final keeper, Robert Cromley, is credited for saving the lives of two men. While looking through his binoculars, he saw where the men had crashed their seaplane and were stranded on nearby Wolf Island. Because of his know how, they were rescued.

Another time, he discovered the bodies of three men in a creek on the island. This time it was a flock of vultures hovering overhead that drew him to investigate  what was going on. Not much is known about the men he found except, on their life jackets, were the initials “J. E.”. It is thought that they came ashore from a ship wreck.

In 1998, 100 years after it was damaged by a strong hurricane, it was decided to restore this precious piece of Georgia history. Its foundation was reinforced and once again the lighthouse was stable.

On the inside, the old spiral, cypress staircase had rotted away and fallen down. It was replaced with a new one, hand made from Georgia pine. This was a major job, as each step is slightly different than the next one. However, the worst part of the renovation was dealing with the many snakes that had made the old lighthouse their home in those 100 years of it sitting quietly and decaying. It took several months longer than expected, but it was completed back to its original look with the red and white stripes.

Then, in 2011, a team of anthropologists and volunteers found the remains of the original keeper’s house, buried under many inches of sand. It, too, was restored.

Proudly, the original lighthouse still stands as a reminder of better times, of when Darien rivaled Savannah as a shipping port and when Sea Island cotton and sugar cane were kings.

There is another lighthouse that sits near the restored brick tower, a third one so to speak. This one differs from the others in that it serves as a Front Range Beacon. When it is lined up with another similar one, down the Altamaha River, it guides ships on a straight path through the Doboy Sound and then, on up to Darien. However, river channels shift and change over time, so this lighthouse was built to be dismantled and moved to another site when needed.

Today the island, which the Georgia Department of Natural Resources helps manage, sponsors deer hunts and wild turkey hunts there. The island’s abundant wildlife includes not only deer and wild turkeys but also endangered loggerhead turtles, which lay their eggs on the Sapelo beaches. The University of Georgia Marine Institute on Sapelo Island and the National Estuarine Research, conducts studies on how to best preserve and protect these coastal islands.