Keeping the St Simons light on for 20 years
On the afternoon of May 22, 2014, as part of our local observance of National Safe Boating Week, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, Flotilla 10-10, St Simons Island, held a reception to honor our own seven keepers of the St Simons Island light and to pay tribute to their exceptional 20 year mission. The event was held at the Gazebo on the grounds of the iconic St Simons Island Lighthouse. Even on this Thursday, their regularly scheduled workday, the committed light team did not join us on terra firma until they had finished their routine obligation “at the top”.
A delegation from Coast Guard Station Brunswick headed by Senior Chief Trey Bennett; the Honorable Cornell Harvey Mayor of Brunswick; Coastal Georgia Historical Society’s Director, Curator and other members, who are the caretakers of the tower, keepers cottage and grounds; as well as fellow members of Flotilla 10-10 and their families gathered to honor the continuous mission of our dedicated volunteer light crew.
Surrounded by Coastal Georgia’s majestic live oaks, cedars and palms that, try as they might, can’t quite reach its statuesque 104 foot height of the current renowned St Simons Island light faithfully flashing its patented beamed out to sea since 1872. The historic light has guided seafarers into safe harbor throughout the years with two exceptions; 2 years during WWI and 3 years during WWII. The reason: all lighthouses from Maine to Florida went dark so as not to give aid to the daunting German U-boats, lurking offshore with full intentions of sinking American vessels.
The first St Simons Island lighthouse was 75 feet tall and built in 1810 by James Gould who became its light keeper. That first lighthouse was destroyed by retreating confederates so that the Union ships could not benefit from its light as an aid to navigation.
The long historical significance and background on our famous St Simons Lighthouse can be found fairly easily but the following is a bit of little known history and other nuggets regarding the ongoing mission of Flotilla 10-10’s extraordinary light team:Mr. Bob West has been a member of Flotilla 10-10 St Simons Island for over 37 years. He grew up on St Simons and remembers playing in its legendary lighthouse as a boy.
Now, into their 20th year of constant light keeper service, Bob is still playing in that lighthouse with the other founding crew member, Jeff Cole, and the rest of CGAUX Flotilla 10-10’s volunteer light keepers.
Bob still remembers the day in 1994 that the Coast Guard called on him to request he put together a small band of Auxiliary volunteers to take over the SSI light care and maintenance. He dutifully accepted the assignment. He and Jeff assembled a crew and the rest is a part of the vast historic past of this widely acclaimed, post card perfect SSI lighthouse.
In 1984, the Coastal Georgia Historical Society leased the St. Simons Lighthouse tower and keepers cottage from the U.S. Coast Guard and opened it to the public. The Coasties were still the light keepers for ten years until all those official duties were turned over to the capable hands of the current U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 10-10’s volunteer light team in 1994.
Today, a seven man crew still includes two of the original Auxiliary volunteers from May of 1994; Jeff Cole and Bob West. The current crew now also includes: Ralph Ainger, Al Dixon, John Farmer, Bill Wiggins & Randy Irwin. David Melvin was also a long time member and Capitan Burney Long, Coast Guard retired, was beloved as one of the original band of Aux volunteers who stayed active with the team until he passed away in 2013 after 50 years of service to community and country.
In 2004, the lighthouse was deeded to the Coastal Georgia Historical Society under the Lighthouse Preservation Act after a long a successful lease from the U.S. Coast Guard to the Society. The close knit team of Auxiliary volunteer light keepers came with the deal because even though the lighthouse and keepers cottage has become a historic museum store and tourist magnet, that bright and shiny beacon at the top still has a vital safety mission that not all that many visitors nor islanders are unaware of.
Over the years, some Auxiliary light crew members have come and gone depending on their interest, ability to make the climb and willingness to complete the required training. It’s a true dedication mission to show up each week and sweat in an extremely hot lens room! Every Thursday afternoon, the crew climbs 129 steps to the popular tourist observatory. They then enter the gated mechanical area to do systems checks while some ascend another 10 feet into the lens room to perform a series of maintenance tasks that insure the light is continuously operational.
Every week, they don the white gloves to clean and polish the high voltage light bulb and the numerous individual prisms that reflect a precisely sequenced illumination out to sea. The prisms are all part of the original super 3rd order Fresnel lens, of which 15 or less are in service in the U.S. Who says men can’t clean house?
Before writing this article, I was in the sparkling clean, super bright, totally surrounded by window walls, lens room one late afternoon in February 2014 to take photos and commented on how hot it was. “Yeah it’s hot…you should be up here in July and August!” The crew remarked. “We bring extra shirts in the summer because they are soaked when we’re done up here.” The guys fondly mused on a related story about their original crew brother, Capt Burney Long, and the time the prisms magnified the incoming light while he was cleaning the lens and set his pants on fire. So, needless to say that’s one reason why it takes a band of brothers in the close quarters, that is the lens room, to look out for each other.
It’s not all work and no play, however. These Auxilliarists are wonderful ambassadors for the Coast Guard and Flotilla 10-10. They are regularly seen and heard entertaining visitors, who have made the climb to the lighthouse observation level, just outside the off limits section to the light. The light guys are full of interesting lore and always ambitious to point out landmarks from the circular deck that inspires awe in its 180 degree scope of magnificent sights so high above St Simons Sound and the popular Pier Village. They seem exhaustively happy to impart their brand of colorful local history to those guests who may inquire.
But back to work…In addition to polishing each of these individual glass prisms and each ones brass frames of the 155-year old, Third Order Fresnel (fray-NEL) lens, the team checks the back-up emergency radio, the moving parts and lubrication of the 3,000 lb gear mechanism, which keeps the lens turning. They test the electrical system, the high intensity light bulb and the back-up bulb, that automatically takes a failed bulbs place; then they cover the photo sensor to see if the light will automate at dusk. All this insures that the 1000 watt bulb, magnified by the exquisitely polished lens, shines brilliantly for up to 23 miles seaward, rotating to produce one (1) uniquely patterned, dazzling flash per minute.
The St Simons lighthouse is part of the “St Simons Bar Channel range”. When mariners approach St Simons Sound any night or in reduced visibility, they will visibly place the light from the Lighthouse tower in the center of the two lighted, steel towers located just into the Frederica River at the south tip of St Simons Island. When these 3 tower lights are lined correctly, the vessel’s pilot is able to safely maneuver through the deep Bar Channel buoys and be assured he will not run aground. In daylight hours, the tower its self is also a charted daymark distinguished by its bright white structure with black trim.
Because of the guiding St Simons Island lights valuable service to commercial mariners and the Port of Brunswick, the Brunswick Pilots Association provides a back-up generator power source to the lamp in case of electrical failure. Over the years and in addition to the general weekly maintenance and function assurance checks, the crew has changed countless bulbs, repaired wiring, replaced the turning motor, polished brass, painted and restored anything that’s broken. Indeed, the whole operation is a crucial element of the Coast Guard motto “Semper Paratus”.
For sure, these men are deserving, yet unsung heroes who have been on mission, reportedly, longer than any other light team in the United States!
Just as the historic St Simons light keepers of old, Flotilla 10-10’s light team are devoted guardians who keep the light on because they are committed and steadfast to their vital assignment. They love the light and are eager to tell the tales of its fascinating history and legends. The SSI light team is one of the Island’s best kept secrets. But wait…the cat has begun to break out of the bag as more and more folks realize that our renowned lighthouse isn’t just another pretty face.
Our faithful band of Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 10-10 volunteer light keepers, dutifully maintain the celebrated major attraction of our Island home and keep the picturesque St Simons Light as a fully functioning ATON (Aid to Navigation.) Their 20 year mission and beyond: To bring mariners at sea, safely to port.
To that end, we say Bravo Zulu!!