Take a visit to Mobile Bay's Middle Bay Lighthouse, a must for tourists and locals alike

Managing Editor
Posted 1/23/23

Battery McDermott, a seemingly impenetrable Civil War defense, once rose as a giant above the Mobile River.

Now, trees fill the landscape where its walls once stood. Sawgrass sways in the water …

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Take a visit to Mobile Bay's Middle Bay Lighthouse, a must for tourists and locals alike


Battery McDermott, a seemingly impenetrable Civil War defense, once rose as a giant above the Mobile River.

Now, trees fill the landscape where its walls once stood. Sawgrass sways in the water below.

Where the past has fallen, the future will rise.

The I-10 Bayway was built in the fort’s shadow with barges that chugged back and forth across the watery expanse as the bridge took shape. The barges may well return once work begins on the newly approved bridge project that will likely carry travelers into the 22nd century.

It’s a clear day. The clouds mound along the edge of the horizon. When you squint, you can’t quite tell if they are sea or sky.

Today, the flat-bottomed “Delta Explorer” passes the now silenced fort and floats under the bridge full of cars that zoom past the serene seascape without pause.

The boat heads out into Mobile Bay chasing that confluence of blue and white shadows. It scoots between what are surely lazy alligators below and busy sea birds above. As the official vessel of Blakeley State Park, it ferries locals and tourists alike to what seems, from shore, to be a world away.

Out to the light.

Here, the past stands. It illuminates the dark. It inspires those who catch a glimpse of it, often through the fog that attempts to muddy their path.

While it is 26 nautical miles from nearby Lake Forest Yacht Club to the mouth of Mobile Bay, this trip will clear just four to five of those lengths. If you squint in the direction of the Gulf, you can make out the shape of trees near Point Clear. The view today stretches a crystal clear five miles toward the horizon. But you can’t see the light. Not yet.

Brown, heavy, fuzzy-looking Pelicans soar above like pterodactyls. They alight upon the craggy outcrops of branches and trees that jut from the water. They land and seem impossibly to balance on each branch’s thinnest point.

Our captain laments the obstacles. He steers around them as the water, he says, grows skinny.

“The history of the Mobile River is connected to the trees in the river. It’s always been a concern,” he tells his passengers.

Hence, the light.

The red and white flash of the hexagonal Middle Bay Lighthouse has guided ships into the famously shallow Mobile Bay since 1885. When thick fog rolled across the bay, a bell sounded every five seconds.

Now, for every captain that casts an eye to the structure and steers away, a dozen tourists set a course straight for its shadow.

Middle Bay Lighthouse tops many tourists’ must-see lists for a plethora of reasons. You can only reach the light by boat, meaning a relaxing trip down the scenic Eastern Shore is in order.

It’s also a tough stamp in your local passport to attain because a pilgrimage to the light takes good weather and good timing, so you may visit Alabama several times before finally making it to the light.

And for lighthouse aficionados, Middle Bay Lighthouse is a chance to glimpse one of the last of its kind – a screwpile lighthouse that is literally fastened to the bay’s basin below.

When lighthouses began appearing on America’s shorelines in the 1800s to help steer crews safely ashore, there was no good way to place a beacon in the center of shallow mucky waters that boats often ran aground in, such as Mobile Bay.

A blind Irishman developed a contraption that would screw the lights into shifting sands. After much cajoling of bankers to give his idea a shot, he installed the first light in London in the 1830s. He sunk 20-foot-long piles with cast iron screws 4 feet in diameter into the murky bottom. The piles were screwed into the sand by a team of men turning it by hand.

The light stood, and a trend was born. Soon, builders in the United States began constructing the new lights, including Middle Bay Lighthouse, which switched its light on Dec. 1, 1885.

Today, many of those early lights are gone, moved to dry land for protection from the sea they were built to warn against. But Middle Bay stands. It has endured 137 years, major storms such as Hurricane Katrina, a bid by the Coast Guard to destroy it in 1967 and an effort to remove it from its watery station and relocate it to Battleship Memorial Park in Spanish Fort, home of the USS Alabama.

The Alabama Historic Commission argued that the light would be safer on land, seen by more visitors and cost less to repair.

Opponents of the move reminded the state that after Hurricane Katrina the lighthouse remained while damage to Battleship Memorial Park swelled to over $4 million. Boaters also maintained that the light continued to guide them into Mobile Bay, just as it was intended over 100 years ago.

Though the last keeper left in 1935 and the lighthouse was deactivated in 1967, repairs by the Alabama Historical Commission have restored it to its original glory.

In the early 2000s, nearly $350,000 was spent on replacing the original iron tower and light with a solar-powered red light. Structural repairs were made to the stainless-steel tie-rods underneath, windows were replaced, and the entire structure received a new paint job.

Officials have said that those repairs should give the light many more years of service, more chances to make the trip, more opportunities to see the light.

When the fog clears and the bay shimmers like glass, head toward that place where the sea and the sky meet. The light is worth the trip.

Editor's note: This article originally published in Beachin', a lifestyle magazine from Gulf Coast Media that explores people, places and things across Baldwin County and along the Alabama Gulf Coast. To read the magazine in full, find free copies in racks around Baldwin County, at our office in Foley, in our bi-weekly newsletter at www.gulfcoastmedia.com/newsletter or here.