Written by Beth Concepción. Photography by Christine Hall
Like most people, I’ve driven by the Cockspur Island Lighthouse hundreds of times on my way to Tybee Island. Quaint and pale in the vast blue expanse of water and sky, the small tower usually merits a cursory glance but not a close-up look. I’m not much of a kayaker and I don’t have my own boat, and those are the only ways to get to the beacon’s South Channel perch. Plus, I’m usually beach-bound.
But today, Captain C. Harvey Ferrelle III is introducing me to the lighthouse in a proper way: via the “Sweet Lowland,” the boat that he uses for his eco tours. Trim and tan, with a laid-back demeanor typical of Tybee islanders, Ferrelle introduces dozens of tourists each week to historic coastal gems like the lighthouse and Fort Pulaski.
As we wind along Lazaretto Creek, I’m struck by the beauty of the landscape. Marsh grasses bend to the will of the wind. Snowy egrets dip their beaks in to snag fish for lunch. Along the way, Ferrelle tells me about the name of the creek. In the mid-1700s, Tybee was home to a “lazaretto” or quarantine station for newcomers—a Southern version of Ellis Island.
Ferrelle finishes his story and points behind me.
“Well, there she is.”
There she is indeed, surrounded by a carpet of jagged oyster shells.
The whitewashed brick structre has been a beacon for seafarers for 165 years. The 1862 Battle of Fort Pulaski raged over its head for 30 hours. Four years later, Florence Martus, the famous “Waving Girl,” was born on Cockspur Island. Her brother was the lighthouse’s keeper from 1881 to 1886.
A Silent Cry for Help
Tybee native Ferrelle knows these stories and more. He retired from the pharmaceutical industry and began conducting eco tours in 2004. He started paying attention to the Cockspur Island Lighthouse during this “second career” as a tour operator.
After a few months, Ferrelle began to notice that high tide swallowed the base of the lighthouse. Low tide pulled on the foundation. When the base was exposed, it was clear that shipworms had enjoyed snacking on the ancient wood. Ferrelle says he called his longtime friend John Wylly and asked, “What are we going to do about it?”
“It was the other way around,” Wylly snorts when we meet him later at AJ’s Dockside, where Ferrelle docks his boat. A local real estate agent and former Tybee Island city councilman, Wylly looks at me with his piercing blue eyes and maintains that he has always paid attention to the lighthouse, which marks his favorite fishing spot.
“It’s a good place if you have someone who knows what they’re doing, and sometimes I do.” Wylly winks and offers a sly grin.
First, he says, he witnessed the marsh grass disappearing—the South Channel had shifted and washed it out. Then he noticed a wake around the lighthouse itself, damaging the exterior and pulling the foundation right out from under the structure.
“It had never been like that before,” he says. “I started getting concerned.”
Marshaling the Troops
No matter which version of the story you believe, this much is true: In 2006, Wylly and Ferrelle teamed up to save the lighthouse—which was built in 1855 by architect John Norris, known for his work on the U.S. Customs House, the Green-Meldrim House and the Mercer-Wilder House.
Ferrelle and Wylly approached Cullen Chambers, executive director of the Tybee Island Historical Society, in May 2006. Chambers recommended they ask the U.S. Park Service for help.
“We were lucky because the Fort Pulaski superintendent (at the time), Charles Fenwick, was a historian,” Ferrelle says.
It wouldn’t be the first time the Park Service was called on to save the lighthouse, which had sat unlit since 1909, when ships started using the North Channel. Since the tower no longer served navigational purposes, the U.S. Coast Guard eventually abandoned it, only to nab two salvage operators trying to tear it down in 1955. According to a Park Service report, “Ironically, the brothers claimed that the Coast Guard had given them the light, whose old Savannah Gray brick they planned to reuse.” Seeing that something must be done to preserve the building, the Coast Guard officially transferred the historic landmark to the Park Service in August 1958.
Though the lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, the Park Service’s preservation efforts were limited to repainting and cleaning. Ferrelle and Wylly saw the need for structural repairs and protective measures.
“We thought we’d knock and tell (the Park Service) that (the lighthouse) needs help,” Ferrelle recalls. “It didn’t work out that way. They said, ‘Why don’t you help us?’ So we did.”
Stemming the Tide
The duo unofficially established Friends of Cockspur Island Lighthouse in 2006, and went on to achieve nonprofit status in 2008. They roped in dozens of family and friends, and started calling and writing government representatives such as U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston to help earmark some money for stabilization and restoration. First, they managed to fill the gaps in the foundation with concrete and rock to stop the shipworm attack. Next, they worked with the Park Service to relight the lighthouse with a solar-powered beacon in March 2007.
“Then it took six more years to secure the funding to do the stabilization work necessary,” says Chambers.
In March, the Park Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a five-month, approximately $1.5 million project to haul and place granite boulders around the lighthouse, forming a 6.5-foot barrier against the encroaching tide.
“It’s been such a good relationship with the Park Service,” Ferrelle says. He is also complimentary of the Corps of Engineers. As president of the Friends of Cockspur Island Lighthouse group, he is ever the diplomat.
Wylly, his vice president—and the bad cop to his good cop—growls, “I hate ‘em!” When Ferrelle gives him a warning look, he adds, “Well, when we start talking about the Corps, it brings out my frustration.”
At issue is that barrier height of 6.5 feet. Wylly says he and Ferrelle would have preferred 9 feet for more protection, especially with the larger post-Panamax ships on the horizon for the Savannah River.
“We don’t know how much damage they will cause,” Ferrelle says.
Park Service administrative officer Tammy Herrell counters that she would have preferred a taller wall, but there are rules and regulations to follow.
“It is a historic structure,” she says. “It has to be historically correct. We can’t go above what was there originally.”
Ferrelle glances at Wylly and notes politely, “If it were ours, we would have done it differently.”
Wylly looks at Ferrelle and grouses back, “When it falls in, they’ll sell it (to us) then.”
Staying the Course
It’s only because they love the lighthouse so much that these friends are so outspoken about its protection.
“I don’t know that anyone else is as passionate as John and I are,” Ferrelle says. “We live and breathe it because we pass it every day.”
The next steps in the ongoing preservation project include repainting the structure, repairing the top railing, windows and doors, and replacing the mortar between the Savannah Gray bricks. Those projects could begin as early as this summer, but are likely to move slower because of funding issues.
Ferrelle says he’d also like to see a walkway from Fort Pulaski to the lighthouse, connecting the lighthouse back to the rest of Cockspur Island as it used to be. Due to rising sea levels, it is now only accessible via boat.
Herrell likes the sound of that, but she tells me it’s not on the docket yet.
“We want to protect and preserve for future generations,” she says. “That’s our mission. As of right now, I can’t tell you what will or will not happen.”
It all comes down to money, of course, and raising funds requires raising the awareness of locals who are invested in preservation. As the Friends of Cockspur Island Lighthouse grows, so does the hope that the little light of Lazaretto Creek will welcome the ships of the future for generations to come.