Bolivar Lighthouse A Backyard Beacon For Determined Couple

Houston Chronicle - Nov. 15, 2003

When 120 mph winds and torrential rains pounded the Gulf of Mexico in August 1915, more than 60 people took refuge inside the Bolivar Lighthouse. Now barn owls can escape the Texas sun by entering the open slits in the 127-foot tower on the tip of the Bolivar Peninsula.

It's difficult to imagine more than five dozen people cowering on the 137 cast-iron steps of the spiral staircase to wait out the hurricane, which claimed 12 lives in nearby Galveston. The group emerged to find homes washed away and property devastated. That included the keeper's home, built in 1860.

Today its replacement, finished in 1916, is occupied by Michael Maxwell, 27, and his wife, Dana, 25. They are the first year-round residents on the lighthouse property since Maxwell's family purchased it in 1947.

From 1872 to 1933, the kerosene-powered beacon atop the tower guided ships from the Gulf of Mexico into the Port of Galveston.

Tight budgets during the Depression spelled the end for the light at Bolivar, which had been made obsolete years earlier by the Galveston Jetty Light. The Galveston light was brighter and closer to the shipping lanes.

On May 29, 1933, the Bolivar Light was extinguished for good.

For a short time, the structure was used as an observation tower by Army troops from Fort San Jacinto, but after World War II that use was obsolete as well. The government later declared the lighthouse surplus property.

"My grandmother (Ila Maxwell) and her brother, E.W. Boyt, bought the property when it went up for auction," Michael Maxwell says.

The ranching family saw the land as a central location for its nearby winter pastures; the lighthouse and two houses were an added bonus. Cattle still graze near the property, but a wooden cattle guard and a chain-link fence keep them from the immediate vicinity of the lighthouse.

Maxwell moved to the property in March 2001 and began renovating the main keeper's house on the east side of the lighthouse. His construction-science degree from Texas A&M University helped prepare him for the project. His day job is service consultant for CenterPoint Energy in Baytown. Dana Maxwell is a dental assistant in Galveston.

Maxwell's cousins, Mark and Jeb Boyt, own the assistant keepers' house on the west side of the light. Residents of Austin, the Boyts use the duplex as a vacation retreat. Like the keeper's house, it was built in 1916 and housed two assistant keepers, offering each a private space. A breezeway separates the kitchens from the sleeping quarters and living areas. The Boyts hired contractors to renovate their house, and the work is now complete.

The Maxwells are doing much of their remodeling themselves, one room at a time. They have battled everything from killer bees (in the bathroom wall) to termites and vandalism. One of their biggest challenges is familiar to anyone who owns an older home: Everything takes longer than you think and costs more than you planned.

The newlyweds speak with pride about their completed bedroom. Original hardwood floors complement 13-foot ceilings and tongue-and-groove slatted walls. A fireplace nestles in the corner. "The wood is hard. You can burn up a drill trying to sink a hole in it," Michael Maxwell says. The couple found the 1916 long-leaf pine impossible to match with today's lumber offerings. They settled for something similar, which reflects a philosophy that's guided this restoration process. "I'm trying to go back as much to the original as I can with what I have," Maxwell says. He has replaced windows, shutters, stairs and posts and removed dropped ceilings from the house.

When parts of the project seem too large or too complex, Maxwell turns to local contractors Irl Unruh and Raymond Moore for professional expertise. The two were especially helpful when the Maxwells were in the middle of renovations that were taking much longer than planned, and dozens of friends and family were scheduled to arrive for their wedding. Although the property has undergone enormous changes over the past two years, Maxwell knows more renovation lies ahead. "I figure it will take about five years before it is completely done," he says. Scraping and painting, electrical upgrades and roof repairs all vie for Maxwell's attention on the weekends. He says his long-term goal is to get the house finished so he doesn't have to work on it all the time. Having the property occupied has eliminated vandalism, a problem that had plagued the lighthouse since the 1950s.

Maxwell says broken windows were the norm when his family came for vacations during his youth. Some of the vandals caused permanent damage. Maxwell points to a circle of bricks surrounding the base of the lighthouse and explains there used to be two layers.

"People would carry bricks up the (lighthouse) stairs and then throw them on the roof of the houses," he says. The pranksters likely contributed to Maxwell's ongoing battle with leaks. "The roof has been a sieve, and I don't think I have all the holes fixed yet."

But he doesn't mind the work. He says he gets a lot of gratification from finishing a project and living on the property. Restoring it has been a lifelong dream, and he's grateful his family has given him the opportunity. "This is one of the best pieces of real estate in Texas," he says. Looking out from the Maxwells' elevated porch onto the Gulf, with seabirds wheeling and calling and diving overhead, anyone would find it difficult to disagree.

Hardly a day goes by when photographers and tourists don't stop to take pictures or ask to walk around the lighthouse. Maxwell says several people have asked if the light is haunted. An Internet site claims that a boy killed his parents inside the lighthouse. The story appears to be pure legend; no histories of the area note deaths occurring on the property. Maxwell says no one in his family has any information on the incident, though it certainly seems the kind of story cousins would enjoy sharing when the moon illuminates the towering black monolith.

In 1968, My Sweet Charlie, a TV movie starring Patty Duke and Al Freeman Jr., was filmed at the site. The movie was later released in theaters. Duke won an Emmy for her performance as a young, pregnant Southern woman forced to face her prejudices when she encounters Charlie, a black lawyer falsely accused of a crime. The script was also recognized with an Emmy, and the movie is now available on video.

Maxwell and the Boyts have longer-range preservation plans for the lighthouse. Over 130 years, the salt air has worn on the structure. The tower is made of brick covered with riveted cast-iron plates. Oxidation has given the metal a uniform shade of nearly black, and rust has devoured parts of the railing up high. The families recently added a wooden deck at the top of the tower to shield it from the elements and stop erosion of the masonry inside. Rainwater once poured through the hole at the top where the lens sat, but the bricks now stay mostly dry during storms.

Efforts to animal-proof the light have been less successful. "The owl had a nest of babies, but I guess they've all flown away," Dana Maxwell says as she climbs the tight spiral staircase.

Michael and Dana were married on the lighthouse grounds a year ago. Their first wedding date was canceled because of Tropical Storm Fay, which drenched the Texas coast in September 2002. Floodwaters covered Texas 87, cutting off access for guests and dousing plans for an outdoor ceremony. The couple wondered whether Mother Nature had it in for them when Hurricane Lili began closing in on the Gulf Coast in early October, threatening the new date. Lili made landfall Oct. 3 on the Louisiana coast, less than 100 miles east of Port Bolivar. By Oct. 5, the skies were clear and the climate was favorable for exchanging vows. The Maxwells were married under a palm tree in the shadow of the family lighthouse.

The Bolivar Lighthouse is private property and is not open to the public. However, it is clearly visible from Texas 87. Excellent views also are available from Fort Travis, a seashore park, and the Galveston-Bolivar ferry.

Freelance writer Gayleen Langthorn lives in Oklahoma City.

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