1975: A Big Change for the Lighthouse on Australia’s South Solitary Island

December 28, 1975

After nearly 96 years of being maintained and operated by resident keepers, a lighthouse off the coast of the Australian state of New South Wales (NSW) became officially unmanned. This lighthouse is located on South Solitary Island, which is about 9.3 miles (15 kilometers) northeast of the city of Coffs Harbour on NSW’s mainland. A crucial step in converting South Solitary Island Light’s operational status from human-operated to automated had taken place a little more than four months earlier, when the 66-foot (20-meter)-tall concrete tower was first outfitted with a solar-powered system.

Proposals for a lighthouse in that vicinity of Australia had been made as far back as 1856. (NSW was a British colony until it became one of the states of the newly formed Commonwealth of Australia in 1901.) The plans to build such a navigational aid on South Solitary Island finally took shape during the 1870s. James Barnet, who served as the colonial architect for NSW from 1862 to 1890, designed the lighthouse. As another key part of his duties, he visited South Solitary Island in the fall of 1877 to assess both the best location for the lighthouse and the availability of possible sources of materials that would be needed for constructing it.

The stone used for building the lighthouse was quarried on South Solitary Island, while needed cement and sand were transported from elsewhere. In addition, timber used in the construction of South Solitary Island Light had to be delivered via small vessels from the town of Bellingen on the NSW coastline. South Solitary Island Light first went into service on March 18, 1880.

South Solitary Island Light subsequently earned fame as arguably the most isolated of all the lighthouses in that region of Australia. Supplies for the lighthouse and those residing there were initially shipped from NSW’s capital city of Sydney and then on a regular basis from Coffs Harbour instead. Due to the steep slopes leading to the South Solitary Island Light, those supplies were routinely removed from the vessel and placed in a basket that had been lowered there by a crane. The crane then hauled the basket of supplies up to the lighthouse.

Those working and living at South Solitary Island Light originally used heliographs (involving the use of flashes of sunlight as reflected on mirrors) or signal lamps to instantaneously communicate with the outside world. During the 1930s, those devices were replaced by radios as the chief way for individuals at the lighthouse to quickly send and receive messages.

South Solitary Island Light also had the distinction of being the first of NSW’s lighthouses to rely on kerosene as its power source. This concrete tower ultimately became the last holdout among those lighthouses when it came to the continued use of kerosene. That hydrocarbon liquid was not phased out at South Solitary Island Light until the introduction of solar power there in 1975.

South Solitary Island Light remains in service today. It is operated by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. The site where the lighthouse is located is managed by the NSW Maritime Parks Authority as part of the Solitary Islands Marine Park.

Photo Credit: Robert trezise (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)

For more information on South Solitary Island Light, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Solitary_Island_Light

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