Roger Bansemer

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Sapelo Island Lighthouse
Sapelo Island, Georgia
1820

Sapelo Island Lighthouse, Sapelo Island GA

Sapelo Island Lighthouse, Sapelo Island
Information and illustrations about Sapelo Island lighthouses  by artist/author Roger Bansemer.
Sapelo Island Lighthouse as it stands today

Sapelo Island lighthouse print
Original painting also available

Sapelo Island Lighthouse

Sapelo Island is by far the most fascinating and unique place that I have visited while painting the lighthouses for this book. The eighty foot tall tower with its red and white stripes is a handsome sight as it sets in the midst of the tall cordgrass that extends out into the lush tidal salt marshes.

There have been two lighthouses at Sapelo Island. The lighthouse that is standing now was built in 1820 but a hurricane and tidal rise in 1898 left the lower part of the lighthouse eighteen feet underwater for several hours. It so severely undermined and damaging the foundation of the brick tower that it was deemed unsafe and a second Sapelo Island lighthouse was built in 1905 to replace it just a few hundred yards away. Called a skeletal lighthouse, it was made of cast iron, similar to the one at Sanibel Island in Florida. It had a cast iron tube running up the center to the lantern room and was supported by iron legs that ran from the top outward to the bottom. It was deactivated in 1933 just twenty-eight years after it had been built when shipping into the Darien area declined so much that there was no longer a need for it. Today the port at Darien is home only to shrimp boats. The lighthouse was dismantled piece by piece and moved to South Fox Island on Lake Michigan where it stands today. Only the concrete supports for the base remain at the site along with oil house and the collapsed dock that once serviced the lighthouse. The two keepers houses that once stood on each side of the light were also taken down at the same time the lighthouse was dismantled and the lumber sold as scrap on the mainland.

The first Sapelo Island lighthouse remained intact but stood there damaged and in disrepair when in 1998, one hundred years after the devastating hurricane put it out of commission, the foundation was once again made stable and a beautiful restoration on the lighthouse was completed inside and out. The old cypress spiral staircase that had rotted away and fallen in were replaced with new ones made of Georgia pine. It was a major job as each step is slightly different than the next. That part of the job and dealing with the many snakes that had made the lighthouse their home between the interior and exterior bricks for so many years took several months to complete. A modern beacon at the top now makes this lighthouse a working aid to navigation once again but since the port at Darien hasn’t grown, the restoration primarily serves the historic values of the community rather than the port.

There is another Sapelo Island lighthouse that sits near the brick tower, a third so to speak, but it differs in that it serves as a front range beacon. When lined up with another similar one down river, it guided ships on a straight path through the Doboy Sound up to Darian. Since channels sometimes shift and change over time, the cast iron beacon was built in several sections so it could be dismantled and moved to another site to compensate for any changes in the channel and still guide ships on a straight path. It never was moved however, and the beacon sits where it always has, just one hundred yards from the Sapelo Island lighthouse. Originally built in 1877, the beacon has been fully restored. The rear range beacon across the channel no longer exists.

More interesting than the Sapelo Island lighthouses is the island itself with its unusual history and rich heritage. There are only one hundred and twenty-five residents on the island, less than any other time in its history. Of them, seventy live in the community of Hog Hammock, most of which were born, raised, and have lived on the island all their lives. Their ancestors were all slaves brought over from Africa. Lifetime resident, George Walker showed us around the island and made us feel at home as we rode down the sandy roads in his old car. He was born on the island like the four or five generations before him. LuLu, his wife also grew up on Sapelo. Together they run a small restaurant that serves the local community. One that day tourists would never even come across as it is hidden on one of the small dirt roads in the woods. A few of the residents like George make themselves available for private tours of the island and it’s a good way to get a more personal look around. When I was there, the park service offered tours on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays and most people that visit take that option. Old yellow school busses are used for the job. There are some paved roads on the island but for the most part they are winding sandy paths just wide enough for one vehicle.

Another important aspect of the island is the University of Georgia Marine Institute established in 1934 by Richard Reynolds. Its facility on Sapelo Island has seven full time scientists, many visiting researchers and thousands of students that investigate and study the salt marshes, barrier island ecology, and wildlife. The facility operates year round and their studies have been ongoing for over forty years.

Sapelo Islands beauty is like a natural diamond with it many facets from its culture and history to the wildlife. It is one of the few places that has not been altered to accommodate the whims of visitors that always seem to hunger for plastic gratification.

The only way to visit this remarkable island is by ferry boat. It only runs a few times a day starting at 8:30 a.m. and the tours only run three times a week. You can get information about Sapelo Island including the ferry tickets at the Sapelo Island Visitors Center at Meridian, Georgia where the ferry leaves the Meridian Ferry dock to Sapelo.

Sapelo Island Lighthouse, range light
Information and illustrations about Sapelo Island  lighthouse by artist & author Roger Bansemer.
Front Range Beacon at Sapelo Island

Sapelo Island lighthouse print
Original painting also available
 

Sapelo Island Lighthouse, BJ Confectionery
Information and illustrations about Sapelo Island lighthouse  by artist/author Roger Bansemer.
B.J.’s Confectionery

Along the way a stop at B.J.’s Confectionery is mandatory. It’s the only store on the entire island. What you will get there, more than a salty snack, is a genuine trip back in time. The selection of groceries here amounts to less than most kitchen pantries would stock. As the bus parks on the dirt road with its deep ruts, visitors flock out to get a cold drink. After they leave the only activity is made by the sounds of the many birds in the trees overhead and Viola, the owner, who quietly continues to weave her wreathes made from grape vines for the next batch of visitors that will arrive in a couple of days. Groceries, by the most part, are ordered by each family from the mainland and shipped over to them a several times a week.

Sapelo Island Lighthouse, Reynolds Mansion
Information and illustrations about Sapelo Island lighthouse by artist & author Roger Bansemer.
Reynolds Mansion

Another stop on the island is the plantation mansion built by Thomas Spalding, He ran the plantation from 1807 until 1861 and the large "Jefferson Monticello" style mansion he built used slave labor. His four hundred slaves not only built the house but also worked the fields of rice, sugarcane, indigo, and cotton. The house was vandalized during the Civil War and fell into ruin but it was partially restored in the early 1900’s. An executive from the Hudson Motorcar Company named Howard Coffin bought the island in 1912 and rebuilt the mansion almost from the ground up changing the motif to a Spanish-Mediterranean style adding an indoor pool and other rooms. Then in 1934, tobacco heir Richard J. Reynolds purchased Sapelo Island and owned it until 1964 updating the house as the years went on. Now known as the Reynolds Mansion or the "Big House" by the local residents, it along with most of the island is owned by the State.

Overnight rooms are available to visitors. Its thirteen bedrooms will accommodate twenty-nine people. You must register for at least two nights and it’s suggested you book at least six months in advance. The cost is $125 per night per person (includes meals) and no children under eighteen are allowed. It’s not your casual drop in sort of hotel and if you decide you can’t make it, your required $500 deposit is not refundable. If you can possibly stay there, I would certainly recommend it.

The alternatives are a few guest houses on the island owned and run by residents. They supply only the essentials and you have to bring all your own food. Camping is another alternative but three months advance reservations and a two nights stay are necessary

Sapelo Island, Chocolate Plantation
Information and illustrations about Sapelo Island lighthouse by artist & author Roger Bansemer.
Cotton Plantation named the "Chocolate Plantation"

Other places of interest on the island include the "Chocolate Plantation." Built around 1819. It was a cotton plantation and got its name from a Guale Indian village on the island named Chucalate. The slave houses still stand today. The thick walls of tabby have held up for these many years. Made from burning oyster shells over a grate, the heat turned the shells into a powder and made lime. When mixed with equal parts of sand, water, and broken oyster shells to give the substance extra body, it turned into the equivalent of cement. It was used extensively in building many homes during that time.

Sapelo Island Lightghouse and machines
Information and illustrations about Sapelo Island lighthouse  by artist/author Roger Bansemer.

When exploring the island, I ran across this old steam boiler and threshing machine wasting away in the weeds.

You can contact the visitors center at 912-437-3224. A man by the name of Stacy will most likely answer the phone. He is very helpful for any questions you might have about the island.

Sapelo Island Lighthouse Map