Roger Bansemer

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Cockspur Island Lighthouse
Cockspur Island, Georgia
1848

Cockspur Island Lighthouse, Tybee Island Georgia
Cockspur Island Lighthouse painting by Roger Bansemer

Cockspur Island lighthouse print
 

Cockspur Island Lighthouse, Tybee Island Georgia
A view of the Cockspur Island lighthouse with Tybee Island Lighthouse in the far background.
All the paintings of Cockspur Island lighthouse were done with acrylics on illustration board. Roger Bansemer©

Cockspur Island Lighthouse, near Tybee Island GA

One of the more delightful lighthouses that we visited was the Cockspur Island lighthouse just to the east of Savannah. The tiny oyster shell island on which it sits is only two hundred feet long and fifty feet wide depending on the tide. Flocks of Oyster Catchers and other birds use it as a convenient feeding ground. As I explored the forty-six foot tall tower, the tide moved in around the light itself and I had to wade back to the island almost hip deep in water and surf.

The Cockspur Island lighthouse also known as the North Light, was built in 1857 replacing another one built in 1848. It was used as to mark the South channel of the Savannah River. It remained in service until 1949 except during the Civil War when it was darkened. It is little visited as it is inconvenient to get to but remains standing at its post even though it has not shined since it was decommissioned in 1909. Another lighthouse built around the same time and of the same design as this was also built nearby but it has not survived.

During the Civil War a terrific artillery battle was fought between the Confederates at Fort Pulaski and the Union forces just across the bay at Tybee Island. The Cockspur Island lighthouse sat in the middle of the bay directly between the two forts but unlike so many other lighthouses that sustained damage during the war, the Cockspur Island light didn’t even get bruised despite the hundreds of shells that passed overhead. That wasn’t the case with Fort Pulaski however because a new cannon called the "rifled cannon" had just been put into use. It’s devastating punch on the brick fort forced then into surrender within thirty hours and made brick forts from then on obsolete.

The first lighthouse keeper to tend the light at Cockspur Island had the appropriate name of John H. Lightburn. Later on, another lighthouse keeper had a daughter named Florence Martus who lived on nearby Elba Island. She was spending the afternoon with her father when a sailing ship docked at Savannah. A few of the sailors rowed out to Ft. Pulaski, just a stone throw from the lighthouse. Florence’s father offered to give the sailors a tour of the island and lighthouse and Florence went along for the ride where she and one of the mariners caught each other’s eye. During his time in port he visited Florence three times and when he left promised to return and marry her. The morning that the ship left port, Florence stood in front of her cottage and waved a white handkerchief. The sailor never returned but Florence faithfully greeted every passing ship with her white handkerchief for the next fifty years. She became a welcomed site for all mariners who came to expect to see her as they entered port. During the years many sailors, knowing she would be there, brought her gifts. One even presented her with a llama from Peru. Today sailors and visitors alike can still see Florence at the port of Savannah, as a bronze statue in her likeness greets everyone that passes by.

The Cockspur Island lighthouse is open to the public but the only way to get there is by boat or by wading out to it through the marsh grass from Fort Pulaski at low tide. If you do that, plan on getting pretty wet but if you have a boat, the public boat ramp on the highway leading out to Tybee Island. You can see the lighthouse from the highway on your left just after you pass Fort Pulaski but it’s easy to miss if you aren’t careful.

I couldn’t help but think what an inhospitable little island this was for a lighthouse keeper to attend to with nothing but sharp oyster shells to walk on and no shade trees to hide from the sun. Of course one hundred years ago it may have looked quite different. If I have learned nothing else about lighthouses, it is that beaches come and go often taking lighthouses with them. It surprises me any of them are left standing.

Cockspur Island Lighthouse Map