Digest>Archives> April 1997

The Doomsday Lighthouse of Sabine Pass

By T. Harrison & Betty Bowman


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The Sabine Pass Lighthouse was haunted back in ...
Photo by: Betty Bowman

Breezes from the Gulf of Mexico caressingly buffet the old Sabine Pass Lighthouse Station, which for more years than anyone cares to count has been nothing more than a haven for marsh wildlife.

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Keepers Quarters in 1975 at Sabine Pass ...

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Sabine Pass Lighthouse approximately 1900.
Photo by: Courtesy of the National Archives

Huge spider webs suspend airily from concrete pillars braced by wood crossbars. Thousands of glistening, blue-green sand crabs scurry sideways at the least sound or movement.

Building of the lighthouse started in 1854, at a point where the Sabine and Neches Rivers join as they flow to the warm Gulf. It was first lit in 1857.

Even though it has been deserted of human life, many times over the years major plans have called for the renovation of the area as a recreational site.

The history of Sabine Pass actually came about under the orders of President Martin Van Buren in 1838 with the establishment of the Port Sabine Military Reservation, which originally contained 20,575 acres, but was later reduced to the lighthouse site with 45 acres. The first keeper of the light was Benjamin F. Granger.

The spot is steeped in history - especially during the War Between the States. Late in 1862 a small squad of union troops successfully entered Sabine Lake and destroyed Fort Sabine. However a month later they were routed by the Confederates. The union troops fled but not before they lost 2 ships and 100 men.

Again plans were drawn up by the union, but this time for a major invasion. The 1863 plan called for the landing of 15000 troops in three waves to secure the region. The invasion force would then connect with another body of union troops moving southwest from Arkansas that would then turn westward in what they figured would be a sweeping onslaught of Texas.

The lighthouse had been sending out its beam of light for less than ten years when the war erupted. Although all the facts are not clear it appears that the lens was hit by a cannonball which broke part of the lens. The keeper glued the broken piece back on by putting glue on both sides of a piece of the Bible and putting the piece of the Bible between the two pieces of the lens. The repaired lens was then removed from the lighthouse by Keeper Granger who hid it in the town of Sabine Pass until the war was over.

This act of extinguishing the light caused much trouble for Federal ships attempting to steam into the pass and attack Fort Griffin, a mud installation manned by a handful of tough Irish dockhands, from Galveston, called the "Davis Guards." These so called ruffians had previously been ordered disbanded for mutinous and disorderly conduct, but were regrouped for this specific defense. They were under the command of Lt. Dick Dowling, a young 27 year old native of County Galway, Ireland who adopted the motto, "Victory or death" for his band of forty-three dockhands-turned-soldiers. When the battle ensued, Dowling and his band had captured 350 Union soldiers and destroyed two Union warships, with the rest making a hasty retreat to New Orleans.

This southern victory came after two major Confederate defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, causing much celebration throughout the south. As an honor to the "dockhand troops," the Confederate Congress issued a commemorative medal, the only one ever produced by the Confederate States of America. Although the battle did not change the outcome of the war, it did stop Texas from being invaded, saving it from the military devastation that happened in other southern states.

Present day residents of Sabine Pass still revel in their ancestors' successful defense. One woman chuckled recently that she had it straight from her great grandmother that the source of Dowling's men's courage stemmed from a cache of elderberry wine.

The light at Sabine Pass Lighthouse came on again at the close of the Civil War, two days before Christmas, 1865.

In 1886, a hurricane sent a storm tide 20 miles inland, killing 150 residents at Sabine Pass, practically destroying the town. Everything at the lighthouse was blown away except the tower with its 18 inch thick walls and its eight buttresses.

In a 1976 interview Phil Hill recalled growing up at Sabine Pass Lighthouse where his dad, Stephen Hill was keeper of the light. Stephen Hill had served at Matagorda Bay Light and Half Moon Bay Light prior to his stint at Sabine Pass Light.

Phil recalled that because of the large complex at the station, there were always work crews around and his mother always kept the crews fed. In those days the station was a popular spot to visit. Many young men from the Life Saving Station at Sabine were always there as well as town folks coming over for picnics.

One of Phil Hill's sisters, Florence was married at the lighthouse and the local newspaper called it the social event of the year.

Phil recalled that in those days his dad made about $75.00 a month as keeper which wasn't bad, considering they got their house and fuel for free, but had to pay for all their food. They ordered their food in case lots and "a food supply was meant to last a long time."

He and his sister in a 1976 interview with Richard Stewart of the Enterprise-Journal Pulse Newspaper, recalled that they were raised on Dime Brand canned milk and the only time they saw ice was in the winter. They recalled that their dad would row over to Sabine to get ice for making ice cream. He would consider it a good day if half the ice would survive the trip back.

Being the only son and the youngest of all the kids, Phil said he was spoiled. He got to spend a lot of his time fishing and the fish was always eaten. Fish was a big part of the family diet. When shrimp were running past the dock in the pass, they would scoop up a big batch of them with nets and then boil them in a big pot outdoors.

Phil said his dad always promised him a pony, but all the marshland around the lighthouse was not suitable for one. However, when his dad was transferred back to Matagorda Light he got his pony.

His parents did not drink, although he does recall that one beer his dad had in "Old Town" Sabine at a place called Anchor Bar. His dad went in and grabbed a quick beer and even gave young Phil a drink of it. Phil said he recalled that he could always say he drank a beer in an open saloon before prohibition. His dad cautioned him not to mention anything about the beer to his mother.

Hill said his dad was quite the hunter. "He'd leave the lighthouse in a small boat with two shells in his shotgun and two in his pocket," Hill said. "He'd come back with a grass sack full of ducks."

The lighthouse business was part of their family's heritage. His dad's two brothers, William and Phil (whom he was named after) were also in the U.S. Lighthouse Service.

In early 1952, the Coast Guard notified Steve Purgley, the lighthouse keeper at the time, that after May 20, 1952, the light would be extinguished and it was scheduled to be torn down.

Mr. Purgley was furious. He started a movement called the Sabine Pass Lighthouse Association to save the lighthouse. Endorsements of support came from the area Chambers of Commerce, PTA, American Legion, Lions Clubs, and even the Governor of Texas. They tried to get the lighthouse on the National Register of Historic Places and even have the National Park Service take it over. All of these efforts failed. In 1952 Congressman Henry D. Larcade of Louisiana said the reason the lighthouse could not be saved was because the National Park Service should only be allowed to have two lighthouses, the one at Old Point Loma, in California and one at Cape Hatteras North Carolina. These two would be sufficient "in interpreting the role of the lighthouse in aiding American navigation."

Finally, the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission obtained title to the property under Public Law 537. Following this move, the Sabine Lighthouse Association voted to disband, since they assumed that the State of Louisiana would now take care of the lighthouse. They did not. There was never enough money in state funds.

Then along came a man named Jimmy Lee, president of Rebel Enterprises who built a conglomeration of businesses of tug boat operations, fishing boats, a shrimp packing business, ice business, liquor store, and a gas station which was grossing millions of dollars a year. The lighthouse was directly across from his shrimp business and he wanted to see it saved. He pledged $250,000 for its renovation, but the U.S. Government refused his money and instead offered the lighthouse to Lamar University.

In 1971, the Lighthouse was conveyed to Lamar University for educational programs, but again reverted back the Federal Government when the University failed to utilize the property, again because of a lack of funds.

When the co-author of this story, Betty Bowman visited the site in 1974 she wrote that vandals had reduced the keepers quarters to little more than a shell. All the windows were broken, the crushed panes covering almost every inch of the floor.

She saw abandoned furniture, including legless tables and chairs, an upturned refrigerator with its insulation tumbling out, mattresses oozing cotton and rotting clothing was scattered everywhere.

The railings of the bannister were torn away in spots, parts of which dangled crazily in the breeze. Decorative iron steps, 95 of them, formed the spiral to the summit of the lighthouse and all of the steps were intact except one. They all served as a deposit for raccoon droppings.

At the top of them was a short ladder leading the way to the catwalk. Vandals had snipped away a portion of the copper dome, leaving the iron ribs to further rust in the harsh salty air. The gearbox, which once turned the beacon still was able to move.

Looking down at the main building, two round cisterns are visible near the bayou. Behind these stands a boathouse. A generator house is located between the main building and the lighthouse.

Shortly after she wrote her notes all the buildings at the light station, with the exception of the tower, were destroyed by fire.

In 1986 the General Service Administration put the station up for auction and it was bought for $55,000 by two businessmen, P.G. Grenader and W.C.Pielop Jr, president of Natural Flame and Forge Co.

At that time Pielop said the lighthouse "is in a strategic location, right at the tip of Louisiana and it might be a good place for a restaurant or a yacht club.

But guess what? You're right, still, nothing has been done to preserve or restore this historic beacon.

Today, Sabine Pass Lighthouse still stands, but only as a lonely, abandoned and dark sentinel, with only its memories.

This month's cover photo showing Sabine Pass Lighthouse, Louisiana in its current condition was taken by Steven Powell of Houston, Texas.

This story appeared in the April 1997 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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