News · Research · Research Catalog

Tybee Island Research Donated to Society Archives

Tybee GA 2009 (2) by JCC copy
Tybee Island Lighthouse in 2009. Photo by Candace Clifford

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

Tybee Island GA 1791 Act of Cession
National Archives Record Group 26 Entry 17J

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

Tybee Island GA 1793 Stair repairs NA RG 26 E 17J
Plan for the new wooden stairs at Tybee Island Lighthouse submitted by the contractor Adrianus Vandennes in August 1793. National Archives RG 26 Entry 17J
Tybee Island GA 17930116 repairs NA RG 26 E 17J copy
The needed repairs were approved by the President according to this note from his secretary Tobias Lear. National Archives RG 26 Entry 17J

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

Tybee Island (03) Octagonal Tower of Brick NA RG 26 GA
Utilizing the surviving lower 60-foot brick portion, the tower was rebuilt to its present height of 154 feet from the ground to the top of the ventilator ball. The new tower retained the octagonal shape at the base but a noticeable difference in the taper of the tower can be seen 60 feet from ground level where the new tower extends out of the old base. Plan from National Archives.
Tybee Island 1867NTM copy
When relit in 1867, the lens was upgraded to a first-order. Notice to Mariners, September 25, 1867

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 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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U.S. Lighthouse Society News is produced by the U.S. Lighthouse Society to support lighthouse preservation, history, education and research. Please join the U.S. Lighthouse Society if you are not already a member. If you have items of interest to the lighthouse community and its supporters, please email them to

Kaptain's Kolumn · Keepers · News

The Kaptain’s Kolumn #3

I thought you might like to hear a little about my good friend, William Converse Williams, who was one of the most respected lighthouse keepers in Maine history. During the years I was at Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse in New Hampshire, he was just up the coast at remote Boon Island, a miserable little pile of rocks six miles off the southern Maine coast.

William C. Williams and his wife, Mary Abbie. Courtesy of William O. Thomson.

Williams (I always knew him as Willie) was a native of Kittery, Maine, and he went to Boon Island as second assistant keeper in 1885. He advanced to first assistant in late 1886, and then became principal keeper on November 21, 1888. He went on to serve 23 years in the position, earning $760 yearly without a single raise.

Williams, who worked in construction as a young man, married Mary Abbie Seaward of Kittery. They had three children: Charles, Lucia Mabel, and Bertie (who died in childhood). A 1926 newspaper article described Williams: “He was a tall, spare, man, dignified, and a refined gentleman of the old school. He had a soft, low voice, and his language was marvelous for its simplicity and purity. He had an optimistic disposition, nothing ever worried him and he never got excited. He was neat and methodical even in performing the simplest task.”

William C, Williams in the keeper’s house at Boon Island. Courtesy of Jim Claflin.

At the age of 90, Captain Williams recounted his experiences at Boon Island to Robert Thayer Sterling, author of Lighthouses of the Maine Coast and the Men Who Keep Them. Williams had many pleasant times at Boon Island, but he recalled the danger of the job:

There were days when I first went on the station that I could not get away from the idea that I was the same as locked up in a cell. . . . All we had was a little stone house and a rubblestone tower. When rough weather came we didn’t know as it would make much difference as to whether we went into the tower or not, for a safe place. The seas would clean the ledge right off sometimes. It was a funny feeling to be on a place and know you couldn’t get off if you wanted to, and tidal waves was all the talk in the early days. I was a young fellow and had never been placed in such a situation. When the terrible seas would make up and a storm was in the offing, I was always thinking over just what I would do in order to save my life, should the whole station be swept away.

Williams described the experience of keeping watch in the tower during bad weather:

There was no lounging place at the top of the tower, only an old soap box or camp stool for a seat. As you set there [sic] just watching your light, all the enjoyment you got was hearing the wind making a cottonmill din around the lantern. With such a noise and being so many feet up from the ground, the seas battering the rocks down below is utterly drowned out. . . . One can hardly believe that after a storm you would find the big plate glass windows of the lantern covered with salt spray, at that distance in the air. After some storms the spray on the glass would be so thick and dimmed with bird feathers it would require a whole day to clean things up before lighting-up time.

Boon Island is nothing more than a barren jumble of rocks, just a few feet above sea level. The 1855 granite lighthouse, at 133 feet, is the tallest lighthouse in the New England region. (Collection of the author)

In an 1888 storm, Williams and the others on the island had to take refuge at the top of the lighthouse tower for three days. Compared to this storm, said the keeper, the famous Portland Gale of November 1898 was “just a breeze.” In a January 1896 storm, Williams and his wife again took shelter in the tower as high seas completely surrounded the dwelling.

The Portsmouth Herald published vivid details of another gale that began on January 31, 1898. The temperature was two below zero, and thick ice formed on the lighthouse and other buildings. The ice was so thick that the fires in the stoves inside the dwellings had to be extinguished for a time because the chimneys were blocked. For nearly 24 hours the winds blew at 75 to 100 miles per hour. The seas moved two water tanks, each weighing approximately four tons, about 75 feet. “It was the hardest night we ever passed,” said Williams, “and no one slept on the island the entire night.” Williams called the unusual sight of the island completely encased in ice “one of the grandest sights” he had ever witnessed. The oil house belfry that held the fog bell was so clogged with ice that it took several hours of chopping with axes to get the bell working again.

In my next column I will tell you more about Captain Williams’s amazing adventures at Boon Island.

Submitted by Jeremy D’Entremont, March 19, 2018.

Education · Job Announcements · News · Research

Opportunity to Work in the National Archives

JOB ANNOUNCEMENT: 2018 Summer Research Assistant / Intern

The U.S. Lighthouse Society is seeking a summer research assistant to copy historic documents relating to the U.S. Lighthouse Service and to make the documents accessible to the public through the Society’s new online catalog.

National Archives
Research side of National Archives building, downtown D.C. Photo by Candace Clifford

The position will require camera work at the National Archives, Washington, D.C., to make digital copies; processing the images on a computer using Photoshop and Acrobat Reader; and in many cases, uploading the files to an online database. The research assistant will also help the Society’s historian answer research requests from Society members.

Camera, computer, and research skills are needed for this position. An interest in and/or knowledge of lighthouse history is helpful but not required.

This is a full-time, 10-week position, paying $12 an hour. We anticipate that three hours will be spent copying records at the Archives each day and three hours doing computer work. An additional 2 hours will be devoted to a research project that generates an article for the Society’s quarterly journal, The Keeper’s Log; web pages; or posts for Lighthouse Society News blog.

This position will support several objectives of the United States Lighthouse Society, namely: maintaining a central repository of lighthouse information, conducting research on lighthouse history, and responding to requests for information and assistance. To learn more about the Society, visit their website at <>

The position will report to the Society’s Historian Candace Clifford. Please send letters of interest with a resume to Ms. Clifford at by April 16th.

Submitted by Candace Clifford, March 16, 2018

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U.S. Lighthouse Society News is produced by the U.S. Lighthouse Society to support lighthouse preservation, history, education and research. Please join the U.S. Lighthouse Society if you are not already a member. If you have items of interest to the lighthouse community and its supporters, please email them to


News · photography · Society Members

Call for Entries – Sunrise / Sunset Category

Time to capture that magical moment at a lighthouse when the sun is rising or setting. Society photographers are invited to submit their best Sunrise / Sunset image at through April 30th.

Here are some of last year’s Sunrise / Sunset submissions:

Images for the previous category, Reflection or Unusual Perspective, will be accepted until March 30th. Each category has its own submission form at

Submitted by Candace Clifford, March 15, 2018

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U.S. Lighthouse Society News is produced by the U.S. Lighthouse Society to support lighthouse preservation, history, education and research. Please join the U.S. Lighthouse Society if you are not already a member. If you have items of interest to the lighthouse community and its supporters, please email them to

Conferences · News

Wayne Wheeler to be Keynote Speaker at International Lighthouse Conference

wayne Wheller at Pigeon Point ca 1994
Wayne Wheeler founded the U.S. Lighthouse Society in 1984. Photo of Wayne at Pigeon Point Lighthouse courtesy Society Archives

U.S. Lighthouse Society President Wayne Wheeler will present “The History of Lighthouses: From Bonfires to Satellites” as the keynote address at the International Lighthouse Conference. Entitled “From Pharos to the Future!,” the conference is to take place on Mackinac Island, Michigan, May 20-22, 2018.

The conference will begin with a lighthouse cruise to Mackinac Island narrated by Great Lakes lighthouse expert Terry Pepper. Seventeen presentations will make up the program at the spectacular historic Grand Hotel which is offering lodging at special rates. It will be a wonderful opportunity to meet and interact with key players in the lighthouse preservation community.

The conference has been organized by the Michigan Lighthouse Alliance. Reserve your place before it’s too late!

Submitted by Candace Clifford, March 15, 2018

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U.S. Lighthouse Society News is produced by the U.S. Lighthouse Society to support lighthouse preservation, history, education and research. Please join the U.S. Lighthouse Society if you are not already a member. If you have items of interest to the lighthouse community and its supporters, please email them to

Education · Kate's Corner · News


Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef, with more on lighthouse architecture.

The light in the tower is what really mattered in a lighthouse. The tower of a lighthouse was there to support the lantern which housed the optic. The light needed protection from the weather and birds and anything else that might fly into it. The protective lantern was typically constructed of cast iron; round, square, octagonal, or hexagonal-shaped; and surrounded by a stone or cast-iron gallery.

bird island
An early drawing of Bird Island, MA, with its birdcage lantern. National Archives
Old Cape Henry (4) REE copy
Old Cape Henry, VA. Photo by Ralph Eshelman

Until the adoption of the Fresnel lens in the United States in the 1850s, there was no uniform design for the lantern. Pre-1850s lanterns are rare and are often referred to as old-style or bird-cage lanterns because of their bird-cage appearance. Selkirk (Salmon River) Lighthouse, New York, built in 1838, retains its bird cage lantern. The bird cage lantern on Cape Henry Lighthouse, Virginia, is a reconstruction of one built in 1792.

Many pre-1850s light towers had their older lantern removed and new cast-iron lanterns installed when Fresnel lenses were added to a light station. Most light stations in the United States were fitted with Fresnel lenses by 1860. In addition to the replacement of the lantern, the tower supporting the lantern was often modified to accommodate the larger lenses.

Fresnel lenses were developed in seven standard sizes, depending on need. The largest first-order lenses were designed for important coastal sites while the sixth order, the smallest, was designed for small harbors and rivers. In a new lighthouse the Light-House Board decided what order lens would be used.

Standard plans for first-, second-, third-, and fourth-order lanterns. National Archives

To accommodate these new lenses the Lighthouse Board designed four pre-made, ready-to-assemble cast-iron lanterns for first, second, third, and fourth orders. (The fourth-order lantern could accommodate fourth-, fifth-, and sixth order Fresnel lenses.) While it was possible to install a smaller order lens in a lantern of a larger order, it was not possible to increase the lens size for a lantern of a lesser order except for the fifth or sixth. Detailed plans for these cast-iron lanterns can be found in the National Archives, as well as plans for many other lanterns—often the exact plan for the lantern of a specific lighthouse.

Absecon NJ by ANi Berberian copy
Access to the lantern room was via stone, wood, or cast-iron stairs which either wound around a central column or spiraled along the interior sides of the tower walls. Stairway at Absecon, NJ, by Ani Berberian

Windows in towers were positioned to provide daylight onto the stairs. For taller towers, landings were provided at regular intervals. The top landing ended at the watchroom where the keeper on duty ensured that the light was functioning properly. The lantern room above was usually reached by a ladder.

Information is from the Historic Lighthouse Preservation Handbook.

Submitted by March 14, 2018

21 Dec 1902 - Times Picayune - Kate Walker copy

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U.S. Lighthouse Society News is produced by the U.S. Lighthouse Society to support lighthouse preservation, history, education and research. Please join the U.S. Lighthouse Society if you are not already a member. If you have items of interest to the lighthouse community and its supporters, please email them to

Kaptain's Kolumn · News

The Kaptain’s Kolumn #2

I ended my previous column with my resignation as keeper of Boon Island Lighthouse in 1874, as I came to the realization that retaining the position on that tiny, vulnerable pile of rocks was not worth endangering the lives of my family.

Captain Joshua K. Card at Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse in the early 1900s. (Strawbery Banke Museum)

A short time later, I was informed that the keeper position at my hometown lighthouse, Portsmouth Harbor Light in New Castle, New Hampshire, had become vacant. Although the salary ($500 per year) was far less than I had made at Boon Island, it looked to me like an ideal opportunity, and I snapped it up.

Located on the mainland in a sheltered spot on the Piscataqua River, the station would be a safe place for my family. Since I had lived most of my life in New Castle, the lighthouse was like an old friend.

You can see the keeper in front of the keeper’s house at Portsmouth Harbor Light Station in the 1870s. The structure to the left is the Walbach Tower, a War of 1812 gun emplacement. (National Archives)

The lighthouse in those days was a 55-foot octagonal wooden tower, standing outside the perimeter of Fort Constitution. The keeper’s house was several hundred feet away, outside the fort. The job necessitated lots of walking back and forth, via a long wooden walkway along the shore.

Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, circa 1859. The first lighthouse on the site was built in 1771. This one was built in 1804; it was originally 80 feet tall and was later shortened to 55 feet. (National Archives)

I was at the station for the rebuilding of the lighthouse tower in 1878, and for two moves of the keeper’s house–in 1897 and 1906. Some people found the new cast-iron lighthouse tower strange. One local writer called it “a corpulent length of stove pipe,” but I liked it just fine. When it was built, it was the first American lighthouse to be built with lighting apparatus designed to use kersosene (we called it mineral oil), and the government largely relied on my opinion of the new system. I liked it much better than the finicky lard oil we had been using, and kerosene was eventually adopted for all our lighthouses.

Another big change in my years at Portsmouth Harbor was the addition of a fog bell in 1896. I had to wind up the bell’s striking mechanism every couple of hours in thick or foggy weather.

1896 copy
Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse and fog bell, circa 1896. (Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses)

I had a great fondness for my light station, and I always enjoyed showing visitors around. I got to know many of the local summer people, who were always sure to stop by for a visit. By 1908, when I was 85, I had been away from the lighthouse only 11 nights in 34 years. In early 1909 I had a stroke that left me partly paralyzed, and I had to retire. I didn’t want to retire, I can tell you, and they practically had to drag me out kicking and screaming.

I died in June 1911 at the home of my daughter. Then how can I be writing this, you ask? Chalk it up to the magic of modern technology and this thing they call the “internet,” I guess you could say.

After I died, a local newspaper reported:

“During a long lifetime, Capt. Card was a conspicuous figure in the town – the most remarkable man, I should say, in that little community. . . . He possessed a huge stock of common sense; was an acute observer, and a shrewd, yet fair minded, judge of his fellow man.

“During a long stretch of years Captain Card was in charge of the New Castle light. In the performance of this exacting duty he acquitted himself with honor. . . . No man stood higher in the estimation of the Lighthouse Board, at Washington, than the keeper of Portsmouth Light.

“Every man, woman, and child in New Castle knew and respected Capt. Card. He loved the town, and the townspeople loved him. His remains rest upon the bank of the beautiful river, the ebb and flow of whose tides for many a long year had entered into the daily routine of his useful and honorable life.”

If you are in the New Castle area, please stop by and visit me at the Riverside Cemetery. I enjoy the company.

Keeper Card Marker_Group
Volunteers and staff of the American Lighthouse Foundation and Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses with friends and supporters for a dedication of a Lighthouse Service marker at Joshua Card’s gravesite in September 2016.

Submitted by Jeremy D’Entremont, March 8, 2018