Houston Chronicle - Nov. 15, 2003
By GAYLEEN LANGTHORN
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
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
"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
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
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,"
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
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
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
Freelance writer Gayleen Langthorn lives in Oklahoma City.