Keepers of the Light
May 2014 marks the beginning of 20 years of continuous service to the premiere St Simons landmark aid to navigation by Flotilla 10-10. The crew includes 2 of the original volunteers from May, 1994, Jeff Cole and Bob West. Capitan Burney Long was one of the original volunteers who passed away in 2013.
The crew is supplemented regularly by Ralph Ainger, Al Dixon, John Farmer, Bill Wiggins & Randy Irwin.
Members come and go depending on their interest, ability to make the climb and willingness to complete the required training. Every Thursday afternoon, the crew climbs 129 steps to the popular tourist observatory, and then continues another 10 feet into the gated and locked lens room to perform a series of maintenance tasks that ensure continuous operation of the light. In addition to cleaning each of the individual glass prisms of the 155-year old Third Order Fresnel (fray-NEL) lens, they check the gear mechanism which keeps the lens turning, test the electrical system and the back-up emergency radio.
Ralph Ainger, Al Dixon, Jeff Cole, Bob West and Bill Wiggins at a recent Thursday afternoon maintenance session. The lens room is pictured behind them. See: lighthouse crew
Construction on St. Simons’ lighthouse began in 1810 on 4 acres of donated land at the southernmost tip of St. Simons, and it has a storied past. The original structure was designed and built by James Gould, who subsequently became its first keeper and served there for more than 25 years. It was constructed mainly of native tabby, was 85 feet tall, measured 25 feet across at the base and tapered to just 10 feet in diameter at its top, which housed kerosene lanterns that needed to be refueled by carrying buckets to the summit. The building was destroyed by Confederates in 1862 to insure that Union ships would not use it as a navigational aid.
Rebuilding began in 1872 on drier land close to the original site. Local legend holds that the lighthouse is still haunted by the ghost of light keeper Frederick Osborne who died tragically there in 1880. An electric lamp was installed in 1934 to replace the oil-burning lantern. Even then, the turning mechanism still consisted of clockworks and weighted chains (similar to a cuckoo clock) that had to be reset manually on a regular basis. In 1954 the light was automated, eliminating the need for someone to live on the premises, but it was still maintained by the Coast Guard.
In 1984, the Coastal Georgia Historical Society leased the St. Simons Lighthouse from the U.S. Coast Guard and opened it to the public. The Society took ownership of the lighthouse in 2004 when it was deeded to them under the Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. “The Historical Society depends on the Coast Guard Auxiliary crew to maintain operation of the light,” said Sherri Jones, Executive Director of the Coastal Georgia Historical Society. “They are loyal and steady volunteers who play a crucial role in making sure we have a functioning navigational aid and they will protect the light under the threat of a hurricane.” The St. Simons Lighthouse Keepers Cottage is owned by Glynn County and has been maintained and preserved by the Historical Society since the early 1970’s.
Responsibility for the light itself passed from the Coast Guard to the Coast Guard Auxiliary in 1994. Few lighthouses can boast an original Fresnel lens (information says there are only 15 in service in the US); St. Simons’ is lit by one 1000-watt lamp and rotates to produce one beam each minute that can be seen about 20 miles out to sea. The lens developed by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel was widely popularized by its use in automobile headlights and traffic lights when they were constructed from glass, and is still used in theater lighting. It consists of individual pieces of glass set into frames. Picture a magnifying glass cut into 100 concentric circles; each piece of glass is then angled into a prism and turned precisely to magnify and redirect the light source. Although image quality is reduced, the arrangement produces unsurpassed brightness. The Brunswick Pilots Association provided a back-up generator power source to the lamp in case of electrical failure in recognition of its tremendous value to ships at sea. In the 20th year of service, the Aux keepers of the light were featured in Elegant Island Living. So...Bravo Zulu to the light keeper volunteers of CGAUX Flotilla 10-10, St Simons Island.