Sarah Jones at the Tybee Island Historical Society recently contacted me for copies of National Archives documents I collected for them almost ten years ago. Jones agreed that the collection should be part of the Society’s Archives to make it accessible for future researchers. In reviewing the documents, I was reminded of Tybee’s rich history. It is one of the earliest U.S. light stations so there are wonderful examples of correspondence from the early period of the Federal government.
The first aids to navigation at Tybee Island were a series of unmanned beacons starting in 1736. The new Federal government passed legislation on August 7, 1789, to take over the responsibility of the existing colonial lights. Subsequently, on November 14, 1789, John Habersham, the local customs collector for the District of Savannah, wrote to Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton:
In answer to your letter of the 1st ultimo, I have to inform you that the only public convenience we have in this Port and Harbour, is a Light House on the Island of Tybee; it is built of brick, and with some repairs will be a very good Building of the kind; its being lighted (which it never has yet been) will be of great benefit to the Trade of this Port, as the Bar is in every respect so easy as to admit of Vessels coming in at night, provided they have a light to direct them. The Building is at present under the direction of the Commissioners of the Pilotage for this Port; but no Person has been hitherto appointed to remain on the spot. . . .1
In 1790 John Habersham contracted with Adrianus Vandennes and Peter Carr, house carpenters, to undertake major repairs to the tower, including the creation of a lantern on the tower at Tybee for $1,791.2
In a letter dated May 20, 1791, Habersham assured Hamilton that “When the Legislature have their next meeting, I shall use my best endeavors to obtain a cession of the Light House to the United States. In the meantime I have to inform you that the additions and repairs to that building are completed, and that as no Person has been appointed to take charge of it, I applied to the President of the United States to authorize a temporary appointment . . .” Ichabod Higgins’ appointment was reportedly authorized by the President.3
An Act to “sign, seal and deliver a Deed of Cession of the Light house on Tybee Island and five acres of land belonging thereto to the United States” was signed by William Gibbons, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Nathan Brownson, President of the Senate, and concurred by Edward Telfair, Governor of Georgia, on December 15, 1791.4
The Tybee light tower was first lit by spermaceti candles in 1791. A November 1792 fire burned all the wooden sections aside from the door at the lowest story, prompting the Lighthouse Establishment to replace the wooden lantern with an iron one in 1794.5
It is interesting to note that The Keeper’s Log (Fall 2011 issue) published the letters written back to John Habersham from Treasury Department officials including the Commissioner of the Revenue. These were transcribed from a microfilm copy of the letters acquired by the Society.
After 1810 a Winslow Lewis parabolic reflector system with Argand lamps was installed. In 1852, the newly created Light-House Board overhauled the existing light stations, replacing Lewis’ reflector system with the vastly more efficient Fresnel lens. The Tybee light tower received its second-order Fresnel lens in 1857.
In 1861 a Confederate raiding party set fire to the tower, destroying the upper 40 feet of the tower, the lantern, and the interior wooden staircase. After the Civil War, $54,443 was appropriated for the reconstruction of the light tower and keeper’s house.6
The 1867 tower survives today as an active aid to navigation and centerpiece of a museum. The station was meticulously restored under the direction of the late Cullen Chambers for the public to enjoy and appreciate. Goto www.tybeelighthouse.org/ for more information.
1 National Archives, Record Group 26, Entry 17A (NC-31) “Letters Received by the Treasury Department, 1785 – 1812.”
2 Letter to Alexander Hamilton, dated November 2, 1790, National Archives, RG 26, Entry 17A.
3 National Archives, RG 26 Entry 17A
4 National Archives, RG 26, Entry 17J.
5 Letter dated November 9, and December 3, 1792, to Tench Coxe, Commissioner of the Revenue, and letter dated June 7, 1794, National Archives, RG 26, Entry 17A.
6 U.S. Department of Transportation, U.S. Coast Guard, Historically Famous Lighthouses, CG-232 (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1986), p. 21.
Submitted by Candace Clifford, March 20, 2018
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