Lights Out

Once upon a time, dozens of lighthouses led many a Texas sailor safely home from sea. But today only a few of these sentinels remain to evoke an era of ships and storms and reassuring beacons in the night.

SAILORS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN AT the mercy of the sea. In days past, beleaguered crews looked landward for help from lighthouses, whose beams, visible for miles, flashed warnings of shallow water or dangerous rocks. But today, seafarers rely instead on computers and satellite technology, and lighthouses are mostly romantic relics that have succumbed to the ravages of time and tide.

To illuminate a vanishing maritime tradition, Austin photographer Dan Winters and his assistant, Roberto Guerra, set out to document six that have survived, traveling southwest from Sabine Pass, on the Louisiana line, all the way down the coast to Port Isabel Lighthouse State Park, near the mouth of the Rio Grande.

The Sabine Pass Light, though named for the nearby Texas town, is actually on the other side of the Sabine River, in the state of Louisiana, where locals are working with residents of Port Arthur and Sabine Pass to restore the 145-year-old building. With its eight finlike brick buttresses, it looks just like a Buck Rogers rocket ship. Not far away is the Sabine Bank Light, on a shoal in the open sea, eighteen miles off the coast of Jefferson County; Winters and Guerra had to charter a boat to reach it. The concrete-and-iron structure, which currently serves as a radio tower for the U.S. Coast Guard, was once three-tiered; the Coast Guard removed its top two sections last year and has placed them in Lions Park in Sabine Pass.

Farther down the coast is Texas' tallest lighthouse, the 117-foot Point Bolivar Light. On the western tip of the Bolivar Peninsula, close to both Galveston and Texas City, it is the second lighthouse erected at the site; the first was destroyed by Confederates during the Civil War to prevent Union soldiers from commandeering it. The replacement survived the Great Storm of 1900 but was deactivated in 1933 and is now privately owned. Eighty-five miles south, near Port O'Connor, is the 1852 Matagorda Island Light, the state's oldest. It is also the only one still serving the seagoing public, though for its light it now relies on solar-powered batteries instead of a large glass lens. A cast-iron exterior, originally painted in horizontal red, black, and white stripes, is one reason it has survived so long.

Near the town of Aransas Pass is the Lydia Ann Light, whose namesake remains unknown. Today the octagonal steel-and-brick lighthouse is the property of Charles Butt, the owner of the H-E-B grocery-store chain, who started restoring the 146-year-old building in 1972. Butt—whose family and friends use the working light as a private navigation aid—currently employs Rick Reichenbach as his lighthouse keeper, the only such job that still exists in Texas.

The final stop for Winters and Guerra was the gleaming white-brick Port Isabel Light. It functions now as a tourist attraction, anchoring a state park and hosting a steady stream of visitors. Viewed from a distance, though, it still conveys a sense of watchfulness and security, reminding us that, at times, everyone can use a little help navigating stormy seas.

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