Tallest to Smallest: Lighthouses of Tybee Island, Georgia

Where: Tybee Island, Georgia

Trip Date: 8/25/17

Ok, I promised “fewer” lighthouses after Michigan, not “no” lighthouses. I was in Savannah this past weekend visiting some friends and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to start documenting some of the lighthouses a little closer to me in the southeast.

Tybee Island Lighthouse

About half an hour east of Savannah sits Tybee Island, one of Georgia’s most popular beach getaways. Apart from the spacious beaches, local shops, and missing nuclear bomb, the most notable landmark on the island is the lighthouse.

Tybee Island Lighthouse

My on-location sketch of Tybee Island Lighthouse.

Tybee Island Light

With some color added.

The History

General James Oglethorpe established the Tybee Island Light Station near the mouth of the Savannah River in 1732, the same year he established Georgia as the thirteenth colony. The first tower at the station was constructed in 1736 and was a simple unlit day-mark. However, it was built too close to the water, and after only five years a storm washed it away. A second day-mark was built a short distance away in 1742.

To the surprise of no one—except maybe the designers—this one was also too near to the water, and by the late 1760’s the ocean had reached the doors of the new tower. Learning from their previous mistakes, the Georgia Assembly chose a more stable location farther removed from the sea, and in 1773 a new 100-foot day-mark was completed.

Once Georgia ceased to be a colony after the Revolutionary War, the light station was officially transferred to the new federal government in 1790. It was at this point that the operation of the station was taken over by the US Lighthouse Establishment—the organization that would later become the US Lighthouse Service—and in 1791 they lit the tower for the first time, making a true lighthouse.

A First Order Light

The Tybee Island Lighthouse continued to operate for the next 70 years until, in 1861 during the Civil War, retreating Confederate forces burned the tower to prevent Union troops from using it. As the station’s position marking the entrance to the Savannah River was an essential one, the Lighthouse Establishment got to work rebuilding the tower once the war ended. As shipping traffic down the Savannah River increased exponentially during Reconstruction, they decided that the Tybee Island Light should be upgraded to a “First Order Light.” The lower 60 feet of the original tower was deemed structurally sound, so rather than build a completely new light, an additional 85-foot section was built on top of the existing base. In 1867 the new 145-foot tower was completed and the 9-foot tall first-order Fresnel lens was lit. It is this tower that still stands today.

Head Keepers Quarters

Tybee Island Lighthouse behind the Head Keeper’s Quarters.

The new First Order station came with many additional duties—too many for only one light keeper. So two assistant keepers were assigned to Tybee Island Lighthouse, and with them came additional housing. By the mid 1880s the Tybee Island Light Station included a new Head Keeper’s cottage, a First Assistant Keeper’s cottage, and a Second Assistant Keeper’s cottage. These buildings, as well as a few others, are still intact and open to visitors.


An antique wood stove on display in the Head Keeper’s Quarters.

Around the turn of the century Tybee Island saw a dramatic increase in population, and in 1897 Fort Screven was built only a few hundred yards from the lighthouse. The fort was so close that the 8-inch gun battery apparently caused the plaster ceilings in the keepers’ cottages to crumble.

Fort Screven

A section of Fort Screven as seen from the top of the lighthouse.

Tybee Island Light Today

Tybee Island Light was converted to electricity in 1933, at which point only one keeper was required. In 1939 the light station was transferred from the USLHS to the US Coast Guard. The Coast Guard maintained the station until 1987 at which point the Tybee Island Historical Society began taking steps to allow public access to the lighthouse. In 2002 ownership of all but the lens was officially granted to the Historical Society.

Since then, the Historical Society has restored the tower and buildings as they would have appeared around 1916, including the tower’s day-mark (paint job)—which oddly enough has been changed at least six times since its construction. Visitors can climb the 178 steps to the top of the tower and view the massive first order lens as well as a spectacular view of the entirety of Tybee Island, and on a clear day all the way to the Talmadge Bridge in Savannah. The Tybee Island Lighthouse remains Georgia’s oldest and tallest lighthouse, and is one of only seven surviving colonial era lighthouses still protecting our shores after nearly 250 years.


A cargo ship rounding Tybee Island and preparing to enter the Savannah River.

Cockspur Island Lighthouse

Although the Tybee Island Lighthouse effectively marked the entrance to the Savannah River, ships still had to travel 17 miles through waters studded with small islands that bisect the river into north and south channels. One of these islands is Cockspur Island. Congress approved the construction of a light on the island in 1849 to mark the entrance to the South Channel. In 1854 this tower was destroyed in a hurricane, and a new 46-foot brick tower was built to replace it.

Cockspur Island

Cockspur Island Lighthouse, the smallest lighthouse in Georgia.

This tower survived the Union siege on Fort Pulaski in 1862 despite being directly in the line of fire. After the turn of the century, ships entering the Port of Savannah were getting larger and required a deeper draft. Since the South Channel was too shallow, most of the traffic began using the North Channel, and in 1909 Cockspur Island Light was deactivated. The shortest lighthouse in Georgia can still be seen, a few miles west down Highway 80 towards Savannah, nearly tucked under the bridge crossing Lazaretto Creek and can be reached by boat or kayak. At high tide the tower almost appears to be floating on the water.

Fun Facts (Otherwise Known as Information I Couldn’t fit in the Rest of the Article but also Had to Tell You)

  • Tybee Island is the easternmost point in Georgia.
  • Many of the artifacts and décor on display at the Tybee Island Light Station are authentic to the site and were donated by the family of a former keeper.
  • Although Tybee Island Lighthouse displayed at least six different day-marks throughout its life, its current restored day-mark was in place longer than any other, from 1916-1964.
  • The 9-foot tall, 6-foot diameter first order Fresnel lens in Tybee Island Lighthouse is about as large as the entire lantern room in which I gave tours at Tawas Point Lighthouse.
  • Fresnel is actually pronounced fre-NELL. This type of lens was named for French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel who studied the refraction and reflection of light and developed the intricate system of glass lenses and prisms that remain one of the most effective ways of projecting light over long distances to this day.
  • The Waving Girl statue on River Street in Savannah was based on the sister of George Washington Martus, a former keeper at Cockspur Island. After Martus was transferred up-river to Elba Island Lighthouse, she lived with him and would greet all the passing ships with a wave of her handkerchief.
  • I keep swearing that these blog posts are going to be no more than 500 words, but then I end up finding too much information and apparently I don’t know how to filter.
By | 2017-09-08T16:59:49+00:00 September 1st, 2017|Georgia, History|1 Comment

About the Author:

James is an artist and illustrator currently working in Georgia.

One Comment

  1. Morton McInvale September 4, 2017 at 11:36 am - Reply

    You managed to include a few tidbits that even I did not know.

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