Located five miles off the Georgia mainland, Sapelo Island truly has a rich history. Before Thomas Spalding acquired much of the island in 1802, Sapelo had been home to Spanish missionaries, and French and English settlers. Spalding established a productive plantation on the island, growing sea-island cotton, sugar cane, and rice with the help of roughly 400 slaves.
For a token sum of one dollar, Spalding sold five acres at the southern end of the island for the construction of a lighthouse. Winslow Lewis of Boston was contracted on September 14, 1819 to build the brick tower and accompanying dwelling. Lewis also provided the light source: fifteen of his sixteen-inch reflectors and lamps, fitted on a triangular revolving iron frame. When the Sapelo Island Lighthouse was activated in 1820, it served as a guide for mariners transiting Doboy Sound to and from the Port of Darien. Located at the mouth of the Altamaha River, Darien was a natural collecting point for lumber and crops produced in Georgia's interior.
In the 1850s, most of America's lighthouses were upgraded with a more efficient lighting apparatus, the Fresnel lens. The Sapelo Lighthouse received a fourth-order Fresnel lens in 1854. Confederate forces removed the lens before the Union Army occupied the island in 1862. Spalding had constructed a plantation mansion called "South End House" on the island in 1809. Although Thomas Spalding passed away in 1851, his son continued to live in the mansion until being forced to flee to the mainland by the advancing Union troops.
Following the war, the lighthouse was reactivated in 1868, when it also received its distinctive daymark - six alternating red and white bands. At this time, several free slaves returned to the island and established a settlement on 434 acres deeded to them by the Spaldings. The settlement was named Hog Hammock, after Sampson Hog who served as caretaker for Spalding's hogs.
1820 and 1905 Sapelo Island LighthouseW.W. Brown was appointed keeper when the Sapelo Lighthouse was reactivated following the war. James Cromley succeeded Brown as keeper in 1873. An accomplished cobbler and boot maker, Cromley was able to supplement his meager keeper's income by making footwear for the crews of the vessels that anchored near the lighthouse. Members of the Cromley family served at the lighthouse for sixty years, with Robert Cromley being the final keeper on Sapelo Island.
The Sapelo Lighthouse was severely undermined and its keeper's dwelling destroyed by the hurricane and tidal wave of October 1898, prompting the district inspector to recommend that a new tower should be built on the island. Accordingly, a 100-foot steel pyramidal tower was erected a few hundred feet north of the brick tower. Two wooden dwellings were built adjacent to the tower, which exhibited its third-order light for the first time on September 18 of 1905. The lamp in the tower was fueled by kerosene, which was stored in a brick oil house located near base of the tower. In 1913, the lighting system was upgraded to an incandescent oil vapor (IOV) lamp. Kerosene was mixed with air under pressure, creating a fine mist that would saturate a mantle and produce a brilliant light.
The skeleton tower served alongside the original lighthouse until 1933, when, due to the decline in shipping in the area, it was determined that a light on Sapelo was no longer necessary. The steel tower was dismantled and shipped to South Fox Island, located in Lake Michigan, where it was active for several years and can still be seen today.
During the lifespan of the second tower, Howard Coffin, chief engineer of Hudson Motors in Detroit, purchased the island from Spalding heirs and undertook a complete rebuilding of the Spalding mansion, adding both an indoor and an outdoor swimming pool as well as bowling alley. Coffin's guests at the renovated mansion included President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, President and Mrs. Herbert Hoover, and aviator Charles Lindbergh. R.J. Reynolds of the Reynolds Tobacco Company purchased Sapelo in 1934 from Coffin. He built a farm complex that would later house the Sapelo Island Research Foundation, which he established in 1949. Reynolds donated a portion of the southern end of the island to the University of Georgia for use as a marine research laboratory in 1954.
In 1969, the northern part of Sapelo Island was sold to the State of Georgia and became the R.J. Reynolds Wildlife Refuge. The southern portion of the island was purchased jointly by the State of Georgia and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to be set aside as the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve.
The original brick lighthouse, oil house and cistern were meticulously restored in 1998. A spiral staircase was rebuilt inside the lighthouse permitting visitors to climb the tower for an elevated view of Doboy Sound. The original Sapelo Lighthouse was painted with six bright stripes, and the lantern room, after having been dark for almost a century, exhibits a light once again.
Today, visitors can take a tour of Sapelo Island, which includes a ferry ride to the island, and a chance to see the marine institute, Hog Hammock, the Reynolds Mansion, the 1820 lighthouse, the foundation of the 1905 lighthouse, and its oil house. A metal observation tower was built atop the 1905 lighthouse foundation sometime around 2002.
In 2011, professional archaeologists, assisted by volunteers, unearthed the remains of the 19th-century lightkeeper's house that collapsed during a hurricane in 1898. The house's foundations, whose exact location had been unknown for many years, were discovered beneath several inches of sand.
Hog Hammock is still home to about 70 people, many of whom are descendants of slaves who worked on Sapelo plantations. The community is one of just a few sites that preserve the Gullah culture and language, a rich mixture of African, European, and American customs and dialects.
Hours of Operation
Monday: 7:30AM - 5:30PM
Tuesday: 7:30AM - 5:30PM
Wednesday: 7:30AM - 5:30PM
Thursday: 7:30AM - 5:30PM
Friday: 8:00AM - 5:30PM
Saturday: 1:30AM - 5:00PM