Backyard History

Backyard History: Tybee Lighthouse

My three-year-old insisted on going to Tybee today. He’s had worse suggestions, so we went and had a few relaxing hours on the beach. Me reading, him playing with his toy dump truck and loader. I haven’t taken my son up in the lighthouse yet, mostly because I think that will end in me carrying him. It’s a lot of stairs.

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Tybee Lighthouse from the beach.

James Oglethorpe had a navigational marker placed on the property now housing the lighthouse in 1733, the same year he founded Georgia. A lighthouse has stood in this area ever since. By 1736 Noble Jones, Georgia’s surveyor, supervised the construction of a 90-foot wooden tower, although it did not have a light. This daytime navigation marker was the largest on the British-controlled east coast. In 1741, a storm destroyed the tower.

A second, 90 to 94 foot lighthouse was built by 1742. It too did not have a light. An associated Keeper’s House was also built nearby. This lighthouse was gone by 1768, a victim of the harsh coastal elements. The third lighthouse was built in 1773 and destroyed by fire in 1791. The current lighthouse, a 100-foot, octagonal-base brick lighthouse, was built in 1791, probably on the foundation of the 1773 building. Note: the Tybee Light Station is a museum today; entry fees apply.

The Assistant Keeper’s House was restored in 2003. Since the restoration included some ground-disturbing activities, the Tybee Island Historical Society, which runs the Light Station and the Tybee Museum, called in archaeologists to make sure they weren’t destroying historic resources.

Archaeologists examined two corners the brick foundation beneath the existing, circa 1885 house. They excavated two test units (square areas that were dug out), finding nearly 5,000 artifacts in their small excavation. Artifacts recovered included architectural materials like brick, mortar, and window glass; kitchen ceramics, bottle glass, and tin cans were also discovered. Food remains showed the dietary variety: turtle, beef, pork, foul, fish, and eggs were eaten on site. Shellfish were also an important part of the diet including oysters, clams, crab, and whelk. Personal artifacts were found as well: a brass finger ring, pocketknife fragments, a glass marble, mirror glass, newspaper scraps, matches, and a piece of engraved slate. Bullets and other armament artifacts were found as well as uniform buckles and a brass insignia. Many of these are probably from the Civil War soldiers camped near the lighthouse.

The brick foundation under the current house is the footing for an earlier keeper’s house. A brown transfer printed sherd (ceramic fragment) was found in the foundation’s builder’s trench. Brown transfer printed ceramics were first made in 1809, so the building must date after 1809. The historical record states this circa 1809 house burned in 1885. Melted window and bottle glass were found with exploded bricks and highly tempered (heat-treated) nails. When iron is heated to extremely high temperatures, the nails are preserved and rust-free.

Artifacts from the 1700s were also found, so an even earlier building was also probably on this site. While no structural remains were found for an earlier building, an undated brick hearth and chimney pad were found, possibly from this 1700s era building.

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