When it comes to lighthouses, Alabama isn’t exactly the Northeast, where around 150 of the country’s 1,000 lighthouses reside. Nor are we Michigan, where 115 lighthouses stand along the Great Lakes. However, what we lack in quantity, we make up for in rich history. Case in point: Middle Bay Lighthouse, located off the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, has been in operation since the 19th century.
One of three remaining lighthouses in Alabama, Middle Bay Lighthouse is quite different from the tall, tubular structures typical of traditional lighthouses. And you won’t find any black-and-white candy striping either. If you’re on the lookout for Middle Bay Lighthouse, you’ll want to search for a structure that resembles a near-circular house on stilts. The one-and-a-half story hexagonal wooden structure is built on metal pilings screwed directly into the seafloor. Known as a screw-pile lighthouse, this style of lighthouse is commonly used in bays and estuaries with soft, muddy bottoms. Today, Middle Bay is one of only 10 remaining screw-pile lighthouses in the U.S.
Middle Bay first began operations on December 1, 1885. At the time, it was built as a lighthouse and residence for a lighthouse keeper. It used a fourth-order Frensel lens to alert ships, and Mobilians could see a white light that flashed red every 30 seconds in the bay. When fog covered the bay, a bell sounded every five seconds as a signal.
By 1935, the lighthouse was automated with electric lights and a lighthouse keeper was no longer needed. Middle Bay Lighthouse was in operation for the next 30 years, until it was deactivated in 1967. The Coast Guard planned to demolish the structure, but the Mobile Bar Pilots Association and other local citizens fought to keep the landmark, arguing that it still played a pivotal navigational role, as it was more readily picked up on ships’ radars than small, modern buoys.
The lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 and was transferred to the care of the Alabama Historical Commission in 1977. In the almost 50 years since, the Middle Bay Lighthouse has undergone a series of repairs and renovations, including a near $350,000 undertaking in 2002 that included a new slate roof, the replacing of damaged wood, and swapping the 15-foot-tall pyramidal structure atop the lighthouse for a six-foot pole supporting a solar-powered red light.
(Alabama Historical Commission/Contributed)
Today, the lighthouse serves as a private aid to navigation for leisure boats, as well as for bar pilots as they guide ships in and out of the Port of Mobile. Middle Bay has also housed a real-time weather station for the Dauphin Island Sea Lab since 2003.
Wendi Lewis of the Alabama Historical Commission says that while the landmark doesn’t offer tours, it’s well worth a visit by private boat or via one of many bout tours offered in the surrounding area.
“Middle Bay Lighthouse is an important part of Alabama’s—and the nation’s—maritime history,” she says. “It’s an unusual attraction … but the thrill of seeing this historic structure up close and personal is worth the voyage.”