Ordered by the Governor of the 13th colony in 1732, General James Oglethorpe, the first tower was but a day marker – meaning there was no light. Only the height of the structure’s profile on the horizon served as guide. It stood near the shore of Tybee Island, 90 feet tall and constructed of brick and cedar.
A storm took this first tower in 1741, even as another, better tower was being constructed somewhat farther from shore and the potentially angry sea’s grasp. This second tower, 94 feet tall, didn’t fare much better. Within two years of its completion, wind erosion and sea encroachment made it clear that a different approach was needed – and fast.
Well, as fast as government, anyway …
It was 1768 before a new lighthouse was authorized, this time at site well away from the sea. The new, 100 foot tall, brick and wood tower, completed in 1773 and lit by spermaceti candles, was the first real lighthouse on Tybee Island.
The Federal government took over Tybee Lighthouse after Georgia joined the United States in 1790 and, in 1857, a Second Order Fresnel lens was added, greatly increasing the lighthouse light’s visibility at sea – but now war was brewing.
In 1862, Confederate troops set fire to Tybee Lighthouse, destroying a major portion of the tower and confiscating the Fresnel lens. The lighthouse was not repaired until after the war but this time they were serious.
Using the remaining sixty feet of the old lighthouse as a foundation, a new tower was constructed using metal, masonry, and a First Order Fresnel Lens. This is the Tybee Lighthouse you see today – and can visit!
While the U.S. Coast Guard still uses the light as a navigational aid, the Tybee Island Historical Society restored and helps maintain the light today, along with the Tybee Lighthouse museum and gift shop.
A visit to the Tybee Lighthouse for a self-guided or an after-hours tour is an exciting opportunity to step back in time at one of the seven, surviving and iconic, colonial era lighthouses in the US. Proceeds from your visit go towards maintenance costs for this amazing piece of US history – so don’t miss the opportunity when you’re in the Savannah area.
Tybee Island Lighthouse and Museum
30 Meddin Ave, Tybee Island GA 31328-9733
For more information, directions, and schedules, please visit www.tybeelighthouse.org.