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Volunteers, federal agency look to restore beacon on Matagorda Island

By Sara Sneath
July 1, 2014 at 2:01 a.m.
Updated July 2, 2014 at 2:02 a.m.

The Matagorda Island Lighthouse, which has stood since 1873, is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The agency is partnering with the Friends of Aransas and Matagorda Island National Wildlife Refuges to help explore strategies to fully restore the historic landmark.

The Matagorda Island Light Station was the first beacon to light up the Texas Gulf Coast in 1852.

A guide for ships entering Pass Cavallo, the original tower was damaged by Confederate troops in the 1860s. What remained of the tower was dismantled and used to build the Matagorda Island Lighthouse in 1873. The new tapered cast-iron tower was built about 2 miles farther inshore and painted black, giving it the appearance of a giant pepper mill.

But the now rust-covered historic landmark, last refurbished in 2004, is once again in need of repairs.

"There's some corrosion that has invaded the actual structure of the lighthouse. And therefore, it's going to take some extensive repairs," said Ron Smudy, a Friends of Aransas and Matagorda Island National Wildlife Refuges board member.

The nonprofit has sought the opinion of architectural and historical restoration experts to identify the extent of the damages and a range of options to repair them. On the high end is a $2 million project to dissemble the lighthouse, refurbish the parts, seal them from environmental corrosion and reassemble the lighthouse once again.

"The low end of that would not be disassembly but basically corrosion removal and a complete sealing," Smudy said.

The group is aiming for the higher end project for longer-lasting repairs, but financial constraints ultimately will determine what can be done for the lighthouse, he said.

On New Year's Eve 1999, the 92-foot tall structure lit up for the first time in about five years. The new rotating, flashing solar-powered marine lantern installed by Texas Parks and Wildlife is visible up to 10 miles.

The lighthouse's previous Third Order Fresnel Lens is on display at the Calhoun County Museum in Port Lavaca.

In 2004, $1.23 million in renovations rebuilt and shored up the lighthouse's base. Though the lighthouse is rust-colored and corroded, it is not in any danger of falling down.

"The efforts that were previously completed focused on stabilization. The thing that we're trying to do is abate the corrosion process so that the lighthouse remains intact for the public to enjoy in the future. It's basically like a car, which can run really well, but it's starting to rust out," Smudy said.

The lighthouse is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

"I invited FAMI to basically partner with the refuge in trying to cooperatively seek funding to repair the lighthouse," said Sonny Perez, the deputy project leader of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

The U.S. National Park Service is better known for having lighthouses on many of its properties and has better access to funds to maintain those lighthouses, Perez said.

"We're more in tune with a wildlife and habitat prioritization. So our funding mechanisms are a little different," Perez said about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Because our funding takes several years to secure, we thought that we might be able to pursue this as a partnership and maybe get the work done sooner."

The Aransas refuge and Friends of Aransas and Matagorda Island are about six months into the restoration project planning. The organizations still must get a pulse on what the community wants to see in the project, identify grants and local funding to pay for the restorations and find potential partners.

The two organizations hope to not only restore the lighthouse but also once again make the historic landmark a destination for community members, who used to be able to access the lighthouse from a public ferry.

The ferry burned in 2003 and was never replaced.

"It used to be a local attraction. What we'd like to see is it not only repaired but visitation to the lighthouse going again," Perez said.



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