Alabama's lighthouses, located exclusively in and around Mobile Bay, guided ships in and out of Mobile Bay from the state's earliest history until the mid-1960s. Early on, the newly formed federal government recognized the importance of overseeing maritime aids to navigation and created the Lighthouse Establishment in 1789. The name was changed to the Lighthouse Board in 1852, then to the Bureau of Lighthouses, or Lighthouse Service, in 1910. It went by that name until it merged with the Coast Guard in 1939.
Alabama's lighthouses safely guided mariners and seafarers in and out of Mobile Bay. These navigational aids were expensive to build and required "keepers" who often lived at the lighthouse and maintained and operated it. As technologies such as electric lighting and advanced electronics developed, many lighthouses were automated, thus making keepers unnecessary. Continued advances in terrestrial navigation systems, such as Long Range Navigation (LORAN), and satellite constellations like the Global Positioning System (GPS) increased safety and navigational accuracy, eliminating the need for operational lighthouses.
Mobile Point Lighthouse and Range Lights
Alabama's first lighthouse and range lights (fixed lights placed some distance apart and at differing heights for navigation) were built in 1822 at Mobile Point where Fort Morgan now stands. The 55-foot tall brick structure boasted a new Fourth Order lens. Lighthouse lenses are "ordered" depending on their focal length, size, and power. A First-Order lens is the largest and generally the most expensive. It has a longer focal length and was often used for coastal lights. Lower-order lenses (fourth through sixth) were reserved for harbor lights like that in Mobile Bay; such lights are visible from a distance of between 12 and 14 miles in good weather The Mobile Point lighthouse was the main guide for shipping on Mobile Bay until the Sand Island lighthouse was completed in 1838.
During the Civil War, the lighthouse was a favorite target for Union gunners and during the Battle of Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864, suffered significant damage. It was replaced after the war with a temporary wooden tower and a Sixth Order light followed by a 50-foot iron tower in 1872. The Lighthouse Board also constructed a house for the lighthouse keeper. In 1966, the federal government replaced the 1872 structure with 125-foot tower, and in 2004, the state of Alabama dismantled the lighthouse and placed it in storage to await restoration. The lens is on display at Ft. Morgan.
Choctaw Point Lighthouse
In 1831, the Lighthouse Board requested $6,500 from the U.S. Congress to erect a 45-foot brick tower with a Fourth-Order lens south of Mobile, at a site known as Choctaw Point. Choctaw Point marks where the brackish Dog River (originating in Mobile) enters Mobile Bay. The structure was completed in 1830 but proved to be of little worth to mariners because they could not navigate the bay's narrow channels. A gale in 1860, closely followed by the Civil War, put the Choctaw Point light permanently out of commission. The property on which the light stood became the depot for the Lighthouse Service. Choctaw Point now serves as an intermodal shipping complex for Mobile.
Battery Gladden Lighthouse
The Battery Gladden lighthouse was constructed in 1872 to serve as a replacement for the Choctaw Point lighthouse. It was built on Battery Gladden, a manmade island just south of Pinto Island and approximately half a mile east of Choctaw Point created by the Confederate Army to defend Mobile Bay. The ironwork lighthouse tower rested on top of a single-story wood-frame dwelling that served as the keepers home. The lighthouse remained in service until 1913. After several decades of decay and storm damage, the structure collapsed in 1950.
Sand Island Lighthouse
In 1838, the Lighthouse Board requested funds for construction of a new light on 400-acre Sand Island, located about three miles out from the entrance to Mobile Bay between Mobile Point and Dauphin Island. Designed by inventor and engineer Winslow Lewis, the 55-foot tower boasted a First-Order lens and was completed in 1838. Erosion of the island soon made a taller lighthouse necessary, and a new 150-foot tower was erected and began operating in 1856. Confederate soldiers destroyed the lighthouse in 1861 when they discovered that Union soldiers were using it to observe and report on military activities in the bay. After the war, the lighthouse was replaced with a small wooden structure topped by a Fourth-Order lens. In 1871, the Lighthouse Board initiated construction of the present lighthouse, and a two-story keeper's house was added a few years later. The new 125-foot lighthouse commenced operations, with its First-Order lens, on September 1, 1873, lighting the way for mariners entering and departing Mobile Bay. By 1880, erosion had begun taking its toll, and the Lighthouse Board expended thousands of federal dollars to mitigate the effects of storms and currents. A hurricane in 1906 completely obliterated the island and swept away the keepers and their home. By 1921, the Bureau of Lighthouses automated the light and then, in 1932 deactivated the Sand Island lighthouse.
Dauphin Island obtained ownership of the lighthouse in 2003 when the Alabama Historical Commission, believing the lighthouse was beyond repair, refused to accept it from the federal government. The lighthouse was then structurally stabilized and the island reinforced to strengthen it against future erosion. The Dauphin Island Lighthouse Committee continues to raise support for the restoration of the Sand Island Lighthouse.
Mobile Bay Middle Lighthouse
The Mobile Bay Middle Lighthouse, located in Mobile Bay, began operations on December 1, 1885, and Mobilians could observe
a white light with red flashes every 30 seconds out in the bay. The facility was built on an iron undergirding, and both the
tower and the hexagonal keeper's house it supported were patterned after lighthouses operating in Chesapeake Bay. The Mobile
Bay Middle light used a Fourth Order lens, and when fog covered the bay, a bell sounded every five seconds as a fog signal.
The lighthouse was automated in 1935 and deactivated in 1967. After decades of neglect, the lighthouse underwent almost $350,000
in renovations under the guidance of the Alabama Historical Commission. The original iron tower and light were replaced with
a modest pole topped by a solar-powered red light.
Holland, F. R. Great American Lighthouses. Washington, D.C.: The Preservation Press, 1989.
Rowlett, Russ. "Lighthouses of the U.S.: Alabama." The Lighthouse Directory. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2010. http://www.unc.edu/~rowlett/lighthouse/al.htm.
Harrison, Tim, and Ray Jones. Lost Lighthouses: Stories of America's Vanished Lighthouses. Guilford, Conn.: Globe Pequot Press, 2000.
Shanklin, Bob, and Sandra Shanklin. Lighthouses of Florida (with Alabama). Fort Walton Beach, Fla.: Lighthouse People, 2002.
Published April 6, 2010
Last updated April 7, 2010