Digest>Archives> Mar/Apr 2016

Little Cumberland Island Lighthouse in Danger of Collapse

Added to Lighthouse Digest Doomsday List of Endangered Lighthouses


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Vintage undated U.S. Coast Guard photo of Little ...

According to a number of recent media reports, Georgia’s Little Cumberland Island is in danger of collapse caused by erosion. According to these reports, the lighthouse could collapse in less than three years; however, some scientists have stated that the lighthouse has ten years left before erosion takes its toll. But, lighthouse records do indicate the erosion was first reported as a problem back in 1870s when a large brick wall was built to a depth of two feet below the tower and the space was filled in with concrete and paved over with brick. Over the years that lighthouse has been protected by rising sand dunes; however, recent tides and changing water levels are reportedly washing away those dunes.

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This image shows clearly shows the erosion at ...
Photo by: Alfred King III

According to a U.S. Lighthouse Service report dated to May 17, 1912 that was submitted to Tom W. Gregg, Superintendent of Lights, the brick tower and keepers’ homes were in good condition; however the boardwalk and fence were in poor condition. That report also indicated that the 3rd order 1200 candlepower Fresnel lens made by Henry Lepaute of Paris was in good operational order. Both the keepers’ house and the assistant keeper’s homes had their own cisterns that each held 4,000 gallons of water. However, the boat house had been discontinued because sand had drifted up in front of it.

The lighthouse was discontinued in 1915, and in 1919 the government issued a five year license to L.A. Miller for commercial use. It’s not clear what commercial use took place over the next five years, but the license was not renewed and in 1924 the lighthouse was sold at auction for $800.00 to R.L. Philips & Company of Brunswick, Georgia, which was owned by R.L. Philips, who probably purchased it for some type of investment. But for the next 30-plus years, nothing was done to maintain the abandoned keepers’ homes or the light tower.

In 1960 the entire island, including the lighthouse property, was purchased by Southeastern Properties, which, in 1965, changed their name to the Little Cumberland Island Homes Association, which became commonly known as the Little Cumberland Island Association. Their association rules state that only 10% of the island can be developed for homes, and the rest of the island is to remain untouched as a wilderness nature preserve.

In 1967 the Little Cumberland Island Association demolished the dilapidated keepers’ homes and sold the bricks from these structures to island homeowners to fund a new spiral staircase, as well as the restoration of the tower. However, they first had to remove twenty feet of sand that had drifted up against the tower and blocked the entryway door. Upon gaining entry it was discovered that the tower was in better shape than they thought. However, major restoration had to be done to the lantern and they also installed eight new windows.

In August of 1989, Kenneth H. Thomas, Jr. of the Historic Preservation Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources nominated the lighthouse for inclusion into the National Register of Historic Places; however that inclusion does not offer the lighthouse any real protection.

The last head keeper to serve at Little Cumberland Island Lighthouse was John Robertson; his assistant keeper was Marvin B. Wilder. Sadly, very little has ever been written about the memories of the keepers who once lived there and photographs of them have not surfaced. Perhaps with this new attention to the danger that the lighthouse faces, old photographs and memories of the lighthouse keepers who once served there so faithfully may surface so that we can share them with you and save them for future generations.

This story appeared in the Mar/Apr 2016 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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