A popular spot for history buffs, sightseers, or simply those in search of a little time outdoors, St. Simons Lighthouse is one of the most recognizable landmarks on the Georgia coast.
One of only five remaining lighthouse towers in the state, it remains an active navigational aid for traffic entering the St. Simons Sound. It also plays host to stunning panoramic views of Georgia’s Golden Isles, including Sea Island and Jekyll Island.
The Original Lighthouse
Before the summer resort days of St. Simons Island, Fort St. Simons was a colonial fortification built under the command and leadership of British General James Oglethorpe to protect the southern tip of the island from the incursion of Spanish forces.
Following the English defeat of the Spanish at the Battle of Bloody Marsh, Fort St. Simons ceased to exist as a military defense, becoming a plantation owned by John Couper. In 1804, Couper sold four acres of his land to the Federal Government for just $1, with the express intention of seeing it put to use as a lighthouse site. With funding backed by Congress, Massachusetts architect James Gould was awarded the contract to design and build the first lighthouse on the island in 1807.
Repurposing materials from the ruins of Fort Frederica, Gould incorporated the use of durable tabby that was popular in coastal architecture at the time, completing the 75-foot octagonal tower in 1810. The original light from the St. Simons Lighthouse was provided by a series of whale oil lamps suspended on chains in a 10-foot tall lantern room.
The Lighthouse base was 25 feet in diameter, tapering to 10 feet at the top. In 1810, President James Madison appointed Gould to serve as the first keeper at an annual salary of $400. He remained in this role until his retirement, 27 years later. About 20 years after Gould’s retirement, the lighthouse received a significant upgrade when it was fitted with a third-order Fresnel lens, which casts its beam 23 miles out to sea.
The Second Lighthouse
As Confederate troops retreated to aid in the defense of Savannah during the Civil War, the Union Army began to invade the barrier island. In an effort to avoid supplying aid to Union troops, Confederate forces destroyed James Gould’s beloved lighthouse on their departure. After the war, the government decided that a replacement tower was warranted.
Georgia architect Charles Cluskey was assigned the task of design and build a new lighthouse and keeper’s house on St. Simons Island. The current lighthouse and “Keeper’s Dwelling” were completed in 1872. The 104-foot, round brick tower is 21 feet in diameter at the base, tapering to 10 foot in diameter at the base of the gallery above. It stands beside the two-story, nine-room Victorian home for the keeper.
The original Fresnel lens was lost in the aftermath of the war, but a new, third-order lens was installed to guide ships safely through the St. Simons Sound. The fixed lens is orbited by four flash panels that provide bright, alternating red and white flashes once per minute.
A speaking tube was installed a few years later, allowing for communication between the tower and the dwelling. A 9′ X 11′ brick oil house was constructed next to the lighthouse in 1890 to store oil drums, but the light was converted from kerosene to electricity in 1934, eliminating the need for oil storage, and soon – the need for an on-site lighthouse keeper. The station was automated in the 1950s.
Today’s St. Simons Lighthouse And Museum
The Keeper’s Dwelling housed lighthouse keepers and their families until the station was automated. In 1972, Glynn County and the Coastal Georgia Historical Society took over management and restoration of the keeper’s house, opening it to the public as a museum, gift shop, and visitor’s center a few years later.
In 1984, the tower was opened to guests, allowing climbers to access the 129 step climb to the top of the lighthouse. Under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, ownership of St. Simons Lighthouse was officially transferred to the Coastal Georgia Historical Society in 2004. The light continues to be an Active Aid to Navigation maintained by the United States Coast Guard.
This beloved landmark and maritime historic site currently features the lighthouse, Keeper’s Dwelling,oil house, and a Victorian Gazebo. The Keeper’s Dwelling is now the St. Simons Lighthouse Museum, housing exhibits of artifacts, photographs, and interactive learning elements for all ages, including period furnishings and decor in the second-level rooms. The keeper’s cottage is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Getting There: From Brunswick on the mainland, cross F.J. Torras Causeway to access St. Simons Island. Go right on King’s Way to Ocean Boulevard. At Mallery Street, continue to 12th Street. Turn right and proceed to the St. Simons Lighthouse and Museum. Parking is available on site.
Location: 610 Beachview Drive, Saint Simons Island, Georgia 31522
Hours: Monday – Saturday 10 AM – 5 PM; Sunday 12 PM. – 5 PM. Tickets are sold until 4:30 PM each day.
Pricing: $12 Adults, $6 Ages 6 – 12, $2 Military discount with ID. Children under six and Coastal Georgia Historical Society members are admitted free of charge.