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Restoration underway for historic Cockspur Island lighthouse

Published: Jul. 5, 2021 at 6:33 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 5, 2021 at 11:04 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - Once a shining beacon for ships entering the Savannah shipping channel, the Cockspur Island lighthouse has been long snuffed but the love for it lives on.

“The community loves this place; they love the lighthouse. When the scaffolding went up and we started seeing posts about it on Facebook from folks, everything has been super positive,” Fort Pulaski National Monument Chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services, Joel Cadoff, said.

Just after dawn at low tide, we took a boat to the island - much like what the keepers had to do in the 19th century. The fact that the crew is working around the Fourth of July is not lost on park rangers.

“I sometimes think what it would have been like, the echoes of cannons being fired, the booms, the smoke the explosions it would have been amazing to see,” Cadoff said.

In 1862, Union forces began their 36-hour bombardment of Fort Pulaski. The lighthouse, in direct line of fire, only suffered minor damage.

Today, they’re not fixing artillery damage. They’re chiseling away old mortar and pool paint for stabilization.

“Some of this mortar has actually failed just through time, and then some of it’s wrong mixes of mortar that they thought was the best mix,” said Miguel Roman, with the Fort Pulaski National Monument crew.

The six man crew ranges from an anthropologist to a recent high school grad. The National Parks Service has a program called T-TAP, or Traditional Trades Apprenticeship Program

“You know you have all of these historic preservation techniques that are being lost to time. So, it’s incumbent on agencies like the National Parks Service to continue to have programs like the Traditional Trades Apprenticeship Program to be able to teach those skills,” Cadoff said.

Skills to preserve the 46-foot tall lighthouse, which has withstood some major tests of time.

This 165-year-old structure has seen a civil war, several hurricanes, but it’s also living and breathing. It’s not just the history behind the structure. This is Savannah Gray Brick; it takes in water and then breathes it out.

While Cockspur has been traditionally painted white - as a day marker - the latest coat of white latex paint and some of the last mortar treatments kept Cockspur from breathing, actually suffocating it.

“And what this is doing - is keeping all the water and moisture inside the building and it’s not letting the building breathe; all buildings need to breathe it can’t be closed up and condemn. You can see all this latex is going to keep the moisture in,” Roman said.

They’re addressing problem areas with chisels and grinders.

“it’s the safest way to get the mortar out, and not harm the brick and keep the structure sound,” Roman said.

Then they mix their own mortar on site.

“We do test patches, so we have a mockup wall of brick, and we basically use the mix that we think is proper and we also have engineering documents from when they began building the fort,” Roman said. “So, we’ll put the mockup wall out here and let it sit during the weather and see how it holds up and that’s how we come up with the mix.”

Roman and all the crew are hyper aware of the weather. With Elsa on track to make a swipe at Savannah, they’ll leave but strategically placed scaffolding will remain.

“By and large there was a lot of thought put into it so I think the lighthouse should be OK,” Cadoff said.

Cockspur lighthouse has proven itself in the toughest elements - and the superintendent says it’s time for some TLC

“This is one of the things that is my favorite part of the job. Is really seeing these young people who are so passionate about the past and passionate about what they’re doing come in and really they are the future, and they are how we ensure these things for the future,” Monument Staff Superintendent Melissa Memory said.

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