If you ever get a chance to tour Georgia, one thing to be sure to put on your bucket list to see is the Sapelo Island Lighthouse. It is located approximately five miles off Georgia’s mainland and is rich in history. Originally, it was home to Spanish missionaries as well as French and English settlers until 1802 when Thomas Spaulding acquired it and turned it into a thriving plantation, growing sugarcane, rice and cotton with the aid of over four hundred slaves. For only a dollar, Spaulding sold five acres at the southern end of the island to enable the construction of the lighthouse in 1819. After only a year of construction, the Sapelo Island Lighthouse was officially activated for use in 1820. The location of the lighthouse proved to be extremely useful, as well as economically beneficial, guiding mariners to various ports transporting lumber and crops produced throughout Georgia.
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During the Civil War, the island was occupied by the Union Army and the lighthouse was deactivated. It remained dark until the war ended in 1868. When reactivated, W.W. Brown was appointed keeper until 1873 when he was succeeded by James Cromley. James Cromey was a boot maker and cobbler and would often make shoes for boat crews that came through the area, thereby supplementing his meager income. For approximately sixty years, various members of the Cromley family served as lighthouse keepers. Robert Cromley became the last and final lighthouse keeper on Sapelo Island.
In October of 1898, a tidal wave spurned by a severe hurricane caused extensive damage to the Sapelo Lighthouse, was well as destroying the living quarters of the keeper. Following the recommendation of the district inspector, a new tower had to be built on the island. A steel tower was built a few hundred feet north of the brick tower and remained in use until 1933 when it was deemed unnecessary due to the decline of the shipping industry in that area. It was dismantled and shipped away to where it could be put to better use.
The R.J. Reynolds Wildlife Refuge was formed in 1969 when the state of Georgia purchased the northern section of Sapelo Island. Additionally, the southern section of the island was purchased by the state of Georgia along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in order to establish the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve.
In 1998, the original lighthouse, cistern and oil house were restored, including a spiral staircase enabling visitors to climb to the top of the tower for a breathtaking view. The Sapelo Lighthouse was also repainted and the lantern once again shines brightly at night.
Now a popular tourist attraction, visitors can view part of Georgia’s history, first with an enjoyable ride by ferry to the island and then a glorious tour of the Marine Institute, the R.J. Reynolds Wildlife Refuge, and of course the main highlight of the trip, the beautifully restored Sapelo Lighthouse.