Tybee Island Lighthouse

Oct. 22, 2019

Tybee Island Lighthouse, Tybee Island, Georgia

Built in 1736.


Station Established: 1736
Year Current Tower(s) First Lit: 1867
Operational: Yes
Automated: Yes, 1972
Deactivated: n/a
Foundation Materials: Dressed stone/timber
Construction Materials: Brick
Tower Shape / Markings / Pattern: Octagonal brick tower; lower 50 feet black, upper part white; lantern, black
Height: 144'
Relationship to Other Structure: Separate
Original Lens: Oil lamps, 1791; First Order, Fresnel, 1867
Characteristic: Fixed white
Fog Signal:

Historical Information:

Tybee Light was under construction by the State of Georgia when that State became part of the Federal Union in 1788.  The lighthouse was believed to have been ceded to the Federal Government in December 1791, although no records to substantiate this are available.   In 1791 it appears that the tower was in commission under a keeper named Higgins and that spermaceti candles were being used in the lantern.

In 1838 the lighthouse was described as being "a fixed light, 15 lamps, 15-inch reflectors. Height of lantern above the sea, 100 feet. Height of tower from base to lantern, 95 feet." The light was refitted with 16-inch reflectors in 1841.  In 1857 the light was renovated and fitted with a second-order lens. In 1862, during the Civil War, the interior of the tower and the lantern were destroyed by fire and the lens was removed. By 1865, the beacon had been relighted but not the main light.

In 1866, $20,000 and, in 1867, $34,443 more, was appropriated for rebuilding the tower and keeper’s dwelling. "The work was progressing satisfactorily" the Lighthouse Board reports "until the 18th of July 1866, when all labor was interrupted by panic among the workmen, caused by the arrival of a detachment of U. S. troops on the island, with cholera prevailing among them. The foreman in charge of the work, and four of the mechanics died of the epidemic and the work was suspended. The troops, while on the island, did much damage to the lighthouse establishment; an additional appropriation for this work is therefore desired."

Tybee Light had formerly been a second-class station but in reestablishing it, it was made into a first-order light, having a focal plane 150 feet above the sea. "When the rebels extinguished the light" the Lighthouse Board reported in 1867, "they attempted to destroy the old tower by fire, but without complete success, and it was found that a considerable part of it could be used. It was consequently torn down to the proper point, and the new masonry carried up from there to the requisite height." The new light was first exhibited October 1, 1867. The old tower had been finished in wood. The new one consisted of masonry and metal only and was completely fireproof.

In 1869 Tybee beacon was moved back 165 feet as the site was threatened "by washings of every gale."  In 1871 gales, which had caused great damage along the southern coast, had so greatly damaged the lighthouse tower as to render it unsafe "and require the speedy erection of a new tower." The tower was reported cracked and liable to fall at any time. "Its great age (78 years), the frequent necessary repairs to it during the time it has been standing, and its total neglect during the war of the rebellion, render it impossible to properly repair the present tower.

The encroachment of the sea upon the southerly point of Tybee Island made it necessary to remove the front beacon, a skeleton frame structure, and set it back 400 feet on a new foundation in 1873. It had to be moved still farther back in 1879.   Between 1871 and 1879 the recommendations for a new structure were repeated annually by the Lighthouse Board. In 1879 the Board reported "During the September 1878 gale, the tower vibrated to an alarming extent and the cracks, which had been pointed up, opened and extended."  Nothing, however, was ever done to replace the structure and it stands today as it was rebuilt in 1867.

In 1884 the illuminating apparatus was changed to burn mineral instead of lard oil.  The earthquake of August 1886 extended the cracks in the tower but not to any dangerous extent. The quake displaced the lens and broke the attachments to its upper ring.

Historical Chronology:

  • 1736: The first lighthouse, a wooden tower, on Tybee Island, was built.
  • 1741, August: The first light was washed away by a storm.
  • 1742, March: The second lighthouse, made of stone and wood, was finished.
  • 1768 The building of a third lighthouse was authorized.
  • 1773: The third lighthouse was completed. This brick lighthouse with wooden stairs was 100 feet tall.
  • 1790 The lighthouse and its property were ceded to the Federal Government.
  • 1857: A 2nd order Fresnel lens was installed.
  • 1861: Confederate troops set fire to the light to prevent its use by Federal troops during the Civil War.  Union forces watched rebel troops at the nearby Fort Pulaski using the damaged tower.
  • 1866: Anew brick and cast iron lighthouse was authorized.  The lower sixty feet of the previous light was used as the foundation for the new 154 foot tall tower equipped with a 1st order Fresnel lens.
  • 1867, October 1: The new light was first lit.
  • 1933: The fuel to light the lamp in the lens was converted from kerosene to electricity.
  • 1939: The USCG took over operations at the light until 1987.
  • 1987: The USCG moved their operations to Cockspur Island.
  • 2002: The Tybee Island Historical Society operates the lighthouse.  The octagonal brick tower now rises 145 feet above ground and 144 feet above water, exhibiting a fixed white electric light of 70,000 candlepower from a first-order lens visible for 18 miles.  The public is able to climb the 178 steps to the top of the light.  Restoration of several buildings on the site is currently underway.  

Chronology was researched and written by Diane Hackney.