The Sanibel Lighthouse has stood for more than a century as a beacon of light, both literal and figurative for Sanibel Island, said Sanibel mayor Holly Smith.
Smith’s email inbox has been filled with messages, some from around the world, about preserving and restoring the lighthouse from the peril presented to it by Hurricane Ian.
The lighthouse, built in 1884, has been deemed structurally sound despite losing one of its four legs and the foundation to its ground-level stairs from the hurricane.
The detached leg was found and recovered in three pieces, said Celina Kersh, the president of the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village. However, the adjacent two houses and the oil house, which have withstood every storm for 138 years, finally met their match Sept. 28, when they were destroyed.
“I think around the world, people know this lighthouse,” Smith said. “This is something so many people have been asking about in this hurricane. When they think about Sanibel, they think about this beacon of light. And what it means to all of them. There are so many people around the world that have their heart for Sanibel and really feel like Sanibel is part of them. And this lighthouse has a lot to do with it for so many people. She’s been shining bright for so long.”
Members of the U.S. Coast Guard and a structural engineer have been at the lighthouse this week, examining it and preparing it to be relit, as soon as power gets restored to that part of Sanibel, said Tim Owen, the officer in charge of the Coast Guard navigation team based in St. Petersburg.
“I hope it gets restored,” Owen said. “I hope it can be restored back to its original form. I think the city appreciates the lighthouse there. They’re very proud of it. I think that light will raise some hope and get spirits rising for the city.”
The city of Sanibel owns the lighthouse, but the Coast Guard still operates the light.
“It’s a 250-watt light bulb,” Owen said. “It’s not like your typical house lightbulb. Through the lens that encases it, it has a sensor. Once that sensor gets to a certain darkness, it will turn on and operate the light throughout the night. Once the sun comes up, it will turn itself off.”
The light can be seen from as far as 13 nautical miles and should be in working order soon.
Restoring the missing leg could be more complicated.
“The city of Sanibel hired a structural engineer,” Owen said. “They came out and did their initial assessment. The initial assessment was that it is structurally sound. But the stairwell to the lower platform was not. So, we brought a ladder with us to mitigate that and get access to that platform.”
Hurricane Ian’s storm surge washed away the foundation from which the staircase ascends.
“It’s just hanging basically, as the earth underneath it was washed away,” Owen said. “Everything inside was intact. We secured the breakers that were inside, so once the power does come back on, there won’t be any issues.”
Alex Benyo, the co-owner of Brilex Industries, a metal fabrication company in Ohio, reached out to Smith via Congressman Bill Johnson about donating replacement metal to restore the leg.
“Sanibel is a very special place for my wife and I,” said Benyo, who went to see the lighthouse while doing mold mitigation work on his own Sanibel home. “It was one of our first vacations. We always dreamed about living there. The lighthouse is definitely the beacon to Sanibel. It’s very important to all of us.”
Benyo is far from alone in offering to donate his time, materials and expertise to fix the lighthouse. Others have stepped forward as well, Kersh said. But refurbishing that leg would be best put in the hands of contractors who specialize in restoring lighthouses, she said.
The Florida Lighthouse Association has pledged $60,000 in emergency funds to help fix the Sanibel Lighthouse as well as two structures on Boca Grande that were damaged, the Gasparilla Light Range and the Boca Grande Lighthouse. The damage to the latter two was not as extensive as to the Sanibel Lighthouse, Kersh said.
“You can’t just get any engineer in here,” Kersh said of fixing these structures. “And you can’t just get any metal fabricator. You really need the people who have experience in this specialty work. Restoring lighthouses is a specialty business.
“When this happened, I got very concerned, as did the Florida Lighthouse Association, about the restoration process. We’re concerned about the three-legged beauty, not having her support, and what that might mean if we were to have another storm of any sort. We were able to get an expert engineer, who specializes in lighthouse restoration work. He came last Friday. They’re still doing an investigation of what we can do to temporarily and/or permanently shore up the light tower. That’s where we are at the moment.”
Kersh’s initial interest in the eastern tip of Sanibel came not from the lighthouse itself but from the two adjacent homes. She had a passion to restore them, only to learn they had washed away during Ian.
“They would bring kerosene oils burning lamps up there every night and put them up there,” Kersh said of the late 1800s and early 1900s. “A light keeper would stay up there all night and make sure the light was continually burning.”
They would stay in one of the two adjacent homes, which were nearly identical to one another. Each house had four rooms with corner fireplaces that shared a conjoining, middle chimney. Each square house later had the addition of a rectangular kitchen built onto and attached to it.
“The keeper quarters, I was hoping for them to be restored and become a museum,” Kersh said. “That’s no longer in the cards at the moment. They’re all gone. They’re gone to the point where we don’t even know where the remains of the houses have gone.
“The main focus is to get the lighthouse shored up and protected from any further damage.”