Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef.
Third District Inspector A.S. Snow told me the sad story of the Sand Island Light Tower, located three miles south of Mobile Point at the entrance to Mobile Bay, Alabama. Before the Civil War, Mobile was the South’s second-largest cotton exporting port. A lighthouse was built on Sand Island in 1838 to mark the entrance to Mobile Bay. A new, 200-foot-tall Sand Island tower was completed in 1858 by Army Engineer Danville Leadbetter — the tallest lighthouse ever built on the Gulf Coast.
In the first months of the Civil War, Confederate States collector T. Sanford hired a contractor to remove the nine-foot-tall, first-order lens for storage, first at Mobile and later at Montgomery. The empty tower was used repeatedly as a lookout post as forces of both sides spied on each other’s strengths from aloft. Union glasses searched for weaknesses at the forts commanding the bay entrance and stood careful watch for the dreaded ram CSS Tennessee. Southern forces occasionally studied movements of the fleet from the tower.
To keep the tower out of Union hands, Confederate Lieutenant John W. Glenn decided that the tower should be destroyed. On January 31, 1863, he sailed his yawl down the bay and begun a hurried reconnaissance of the island. When his movements were detected and a Union boat approached, “As hurriedly as possible I set fire to the five frame buildings on the island and then returned to my boat and by keeping the island between
me and the enemy’s vessel, I managed to get a mile away from her before she discerned my exact position.”
He added that,” The island is now a barren sand waste. Even the grass and brush is burned off and at such a time as I shall judge expedient, I will tumble the lighthouse down in their teeth.” He followed up his threat on February 23. He sapped the lighthouse with 70 pounds of gunpowder buried under its base and lit the fuse. He reported that, “Nothing remains but a narrow shred about fifty feet high.”
Glenn’s gleeful report was addressed to Confederate States Brigadier General Danville Leadbetter, the U.S. Light-House Board engineer who had built the magnificent tower on Sand Island only a few years earlier. How do you suppose General Leadbetter felt about a brash young lieutenant destroying his masterpiece?
The 1872 Annual Report of the Light-House Board noted that “a temporary frame tower, with fourth-order lens, was erected to replace a brick tower destroyed during the war . . .. The island lies three miles south of the mouth of Mobile Bay and is merely a bank of sand, about four hundred acres in extent, constantly changing its outline. . . . The foundation, consisting of a double course of sill timbers resting on one hundred and seventy-one piles and overlaid with a depth of 12 feet of concrete, was put down.”
Have you seen pilings supporting a dock or pier? Can you picture 171 piles sunk in a solid circle to hold the concrete base of this lighthouse (Sand Island)? You can see the base of the lighthouse in this drawing. It is surrounded by stone riprap to cut the force of water washing against it. Is riprap a new term to you?
The 1873 Annual Report of the Light-House Board indicated that the total height to the focal plane of the light will be 125 feet, or 132 feet above sea level, and the visibility of the light will extend to a distance of seventeen and one-half nautical miles.
The light was deactivated in 1971. The island has since eroded away, and the tower is exposed to the sea. The Sand Island Lighthouse Preservation Group hopes to restore the lighthouse.
Information is from David Cipra, Lighthouses, Lightships, and the Gulf of Mexico, p. 72, and this web page.
Candace was the US Lighthouse Society historian from 2016 until she passed away in August 2018. For 30 years, her work involved lighthouse history. She worked with the National Park Service and the Council of American Maritime Museums. She was a noted author and was considered the most knowledgable person on lighthouse information at the National Archives. Books by Candace Clifford include: Women who Kept the Lights: a History of Thirty-eight Female Lighthouse Keepers , Mind the Light Katie, and Maine Lighthouses, Documentation of their Past.