In 1877, acting in accordance with the resolutions of the 1873 Conference, James Barnet landed on South Solitary Island to select the location for a future lighthouse. Detailed plans were drawn the following year and tenders called.
The successful tenderer, John McLeod had previously constructed Sugarloaf Point to Barnet's designs.
McLeod erected a series of temporary barracks style huts for his workmen, just north of the proposed location of the lighthouse tower. He also constructed a tramway down the spine of the Island to the site of the current jetty, where several attempts were made to erect a structure that would withstand storms and enable construction to continue.
The buildings were constructed of man made concrete, with cement delivered in wooden casks, sand from the Macleay River and ground stone from the Island itself. The entire lighting mechanism was supplied by Chance Bros. The light being a first order dioptric revolving white optic, with eclipses every thirty seconds. The lamp was replaced in 1975, when the complex was automated and is held in the Coffs Harbour and District Historical Museum.
Barnet expected the construction to be completed in 1879 and had this date carved for the keystone over the Light entry doorway. In fact the light was first exhibited on 18 March 1880. The two cottage buildings had curved roofs on every element except the lean-to fowl shed. It is likely that this roof form proved unsatisfactory as the buildings were re-roofed in 1894 by George Boothby to the current shapes. The original contract also included a high protective wall to provide shelter for the Keepers as they went from their quarters to the tower. Close to the tower were the flagstaff for signalling and the small round roofed concrete structure in which the signalling flags were stored.
The Keepers inherited a goat herd from the building contractors and soon filled the lean to fowl house in the backyard designed by Barnet which remained in use until 1934 when it was finally replaced.
For the first 50 years supplies and basic stores were brought direct from Sydney by coastal traders every three months. This is the reason for the large, fully shelved store rooms in all of the quarters.
The severe conditions caused by the exposed location led to a series of rebuilding and substantial repairs to most of the Island features. The roof design of the quarters was radically altered to the present configuration in 1894. At the same time new wash houses were constructed next to the fowl houses.
The new corrugated iron roof did not last long, after ten years it was replaced to terracotta or slate. Only the verandahs, fowl houses, new wash houses remained with corrugated iron roofs in 1904. A new jetty was also constructed in 1904.
Shipping was the vital link with the Island and in 1913, 1914 and 1915 the jetty was repaired, the crane and landing stage extended. In 1932 the jetty was further reconstructed it was not until 1957-9 that the old jetty was finally superseded.
New communication had reached the island in 1937 in the form of the wireless operated by morse code keys. However it proved unreliable being Army surplus and the security of the Morse signal light which had replaced the flagstaff in 1910 was preferred.
Meanwhile access to the island continued by ship. The first known helicopter landing was in January 1958. In 1974, just before the Lighthouse Keepers were removed from the island the flag pole was removed and a square concrete pad was laid as a helicopter landing place. As the jetty has also been left unattended since 1975, helicopters have been the only safe way to access the island.
The Lighthouse was automated in 1975 and the historic optic and pedestal were removed for storage in the local Museum. The Lighthouse tower is still operated and maintained by Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA). The remainder of the buildings on the Island are vacant and managed by National Parks and Wildlife, NSW.
Many keepers have been on the island since 1880. The minimum appointment was two years but one keeper stayed for eleven years, and each could tell a story of their life on the island. One wife said it meant to her "fresh air, peace and quiet and security".
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