A guide for mariners in Doboy Sound on their way to and from the Port of Darien, it was activated in 1820 and received a fourth-order Fresnel lens in 1854. In 1856 a beacon light was built, forming a range with the lighthouse and guiding ships into the sound. Confederate forces removed the lens from Sapelo Island Lighthouse before the Union Army occupied the island in 1862 and the lighthouse suffered partial damage during the war. 1868 saw the completion of repairs and its return to service, along with a new beacon mounted on a fifty-foot frame tower.
On October 2, 1898, the most powerful hurricane to ever strike Georgia came ashore near Cumberland Island. The storm killed at least 179 people, and on Sapelo Island lighthouse keeper William G. Cromley and his family survived the storm by seeking refuge in the lighthouse. The old tower and dwelling were partially undermined, and when the keeper’s dwelling was demolished its bricks were placed under and around the base of the threatened tower and cemented in attempt to save the old structure. Predicting the eventual collapse of the lighthouse a new tower with metal framework was built farther inland in 1905, and it served alongside the original lighthouse until 1933. This steel tower was ultimately dismantled and shipped to South Fox Island in Lake Michigan, where it was active for several years and can still be seen today. Meanwhile, the old lighthouse stood empty for many years until the 206-acre southern portion of the island was purchased (by the State of Georgia and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) in 1991 and set aside as the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve. In 1998 the tower was restored, the light relit and a spiral staircase added to allow visitors to enjoy the view of Doboy Sound.
To visit the island you must join a tour group; for more information please visit the Georgia DNR website. Take into consideration that the climb to the top is steep; there are over 70 steps to climb to reach the platform from which visitors must ascend a ladder through a hatch to reach the viewing station at the top. With no air circulation the heat can be rather stifling, but we found the view to be worth the temporary discomfort.
More on Sapelo Island:
An introduction, Nanny Goat Beach and the Hog Hammock community
A short history of the island
Tour the Reynolds Mansion
Your guide to visiting Sapelo Island