Ship Island Lighthouses

Black and white photo of the second Ship Island Lighthouse and one story keepers quarters.
The second Ship Island Lighthouse

The First Ship Island Lighthouse

The Mississippi Sound, known for its shallow dark waters, can be a treacherous area for vessels navigating between Mobile and New Orleans. Shifting shoals and storms complicated travel by ships along this stretch of barrier islands and mainland coast. However, commercial shipping traffic was vital to survival along the Mississippi gulf coast, thus requiring the government to provide navigational aids and beacons.

In 1848, monetary appropriations were approved for the construction of the Ship Island Light. The lighthouse was built to stand 45 feet from base to lantern with walls three and a half feet wide at the base and tapering to two feet wide near the top. The structure was completed on November 4, 1853, and Edward Havens became the light’s first keeper on December 25 of the same year. The Ship Island Lighthouse became a guiding light for vessels plying the waters along the Gulf Coast, until secessionist forces seized the island in January of 1861. The light was extinguished, and its Fresnel lens removed. Confederate forces destroyed the interior of the lighthouse by lighting it on fire. Their intent was to prevent the lighthouse from being used by Union forces, who seized the island in September 1861. Repairs were initiated, and the light was again providing navigational aid by November 1862.

After surviving storms, the Civil War, and the harsh environs of a barrier island, erosion proved to be the fatal trial for the first Ship Island Light. During high winds the tower would sway and was “Liable to fall at any time,” according to keeper Dan McColl. Eventually the lighthouse was abandoned entirely in 1885.
As the old abandoned lighthouse slowly succumbed to the effects of weather, a new light station was designed and built by John Gardner. This second Ship Island lighthouse consisted of a wooden tower, keeper’s house, cistern, oil house, and a wharf, and was illuminated on September 1 , 1886 with the lens from the original lighthouse.

Still standing, the first Ship Island Light tower weathered the 1893 hurricane and finally fell into the Mississippi Sound by 1901. For almost five decades, the first Ship Island Lighthouse stood as a familiar area landmark, but the ever changing nature of barrier islands proved fatal for the impressive structure.


The Second Ship Island Lighthouse

In 1885, shoreline erosion made the first Ship Island Lighthouse inoperable, and the beacon was abandoned. Plans for a new beacon were already underway. At 75 feet, the new wooden structure was fitted with the old lighthouse’s pedestal and Fresnel 4th Order Lens. The Second Ship Island Lighthouse was illuminated in September 1886 and served until 1957. Although it survived numerous storms and strong hurricanes, the wooden tower was accidently set on fire by campers and destroyed in 1972. (Ship Island Lighthouses, 2005)


Exhibit Lighthouse at Ship Island

Area residents mourned the loss of the historic structure. Eventually, a proposal was initiated and approved to build a replica-styled exhibit. Through funding support of the Friends of Gulf Islands National Seashore and construction provided by the Seabees of the U.S. Naval Construction Battalion in Gulfport, the second Ship Island Light’s outer exhibit shell was designed. Construction of the new exhibit started in 1998 and was capped off when a Coast Guard helicopter placed the new cupola a top the tower in February 2000.

Unfortunately, Hurricane Katrina’s intense winds and waves destroyed the exhibit just five years after its dedication. (Ship Island Lighthouses, 2005)



(2005, June). Ship Island Lighthouses. Mississippi, United States: Gulf Islands National Seashore, National Park Service.

Bearrs, E. (1984). Historical Resource Study: Ship Island, Harrison County, Mississippi, Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida/Mississippi. Denver: National Park Service, Department of the Interior.


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Last updated: March 4, 2020

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