Roger Bansemer

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Information and illustrations about Cape St. George lighthouse by artist & author Roger Bansemer.
Cape St. George Lighthouse
Cape St. George, Florida (Near Apalachicola)
1833
1847 1852 present


Cape St. George Lighthouse with storm

Cape St. George lighthouse print

Cape St. George Lighthouse

Cape St. George lighthouse print
I did this painting in 1998 when even parts of the keepers house were still standing.
Cape St. George Lighthouse © Roger Bansemer
Cape St George lighthouse print

Sad news, the hurricanes of 2005 toppled the lighthouse once and for all.
What was left of the keepers house has totally disappeared as well.

My 1998 recollections and facts about the Cape St. George lighthouse.
The Cape St. George Lighthouse was one of the more interesting adventures I had in visiting Florida lighthouses. Not having done my homework as I should have before my wife Sarah and I arrived, I quickly found out that my car would be of no use in getting to the lighthouse. Fortunately, we were towing our boat. Unfortunately, our boat is only twelve feet long, and the lighthouse is nine miles offshore. At Apalachicola, I asked a man by the boat ramp to point the way, since the lighthouse was not visible and the island was barely visible. Accompanying his directions was a stern warning about the quickly changing temperament of the bay, especially with summer storms. After considering our options, we put in the water and headed for the island, having to negotiate every wave with caution, which made for a long and exhausting excursion. A slightly larger boat would have done just fine; we were a little undersized and underpowered.

After what seemed like forever, we finally landed on the protected back side of St. George Island, where the water was calm and smooth. The lighthouse was still not visible even after we landed. That required a two-mile walk across the island, then south down the beach. The fine powdery sand path made walking difficult. Add to that the intense heat of the sun, and the trek was less than comfortable. Fortunately, there were no mosquitoes despite the lack of a breeze, although I’m sure at times they’re ferocious. If we hadn’t traveled so far in that little aluminum boat of ours, I might have had the notion to turn back before we fell victims to heatstroke, but our persistence finally paid off. We came to a small dune and just beyond saw the blue gulf waters breaking up on the unspoiled beach. There wasn’t another person in sight. Stepping out into the surf to cool our feet, we looked in all directions but still saw no lighthouse. Remembering the conversation back at the dock, I thought the man who gave us directions had said to go left. We did and soon came to a forest of pine trees with four to five feet of their roots exposed from beach erosion. Then we finally came upon the spectacular sight of this leaning tower.

There have been three lighthouses on or near this site. The first one was built in 1833. The second was built in 1847 and stood only four years. The hurricane that destroyed it also destroyed the lighthouses at Cape San Blas and St. Joseph Bay to the north and at Dog Island just to the south near Carrabelle. The lighthouse built in 1852 at St. George is the one I’ve painted. At the beginning of the Civil War, the light was extinguished and the lens removed and hidden. The Union captured Apalachicola by ship in 1862 and used the keepers’ houses as housing and recreation areas for soldiers. After the war, the lens was found, and the light was relit in 1899.

A hurricane in 1985 took out the dune line, and in 1992, Hurricane Andrew added to the erosion problem. The lighthouse that once stood fifteen hundred feet from the gulf now has water lapping at its base during high tide and leans at an angle of fourteen degrees—another few degrees and the second oldest lighthouse on the gulf coast will topple. At the time I did these paintings, efforts were under way to save the light. After seeing it, though, I get the feeling that unless something is done quickly, these might be the last paintings done of it before it collapses.

 This area of Florida has a long history. Even before Europeans reached the shores of the Panhandle, Indians lived here. Pottery fragments dating as far back as a.d. 750 have been found on St. George Island, and it is believed that there were Indians here as long ago as ten thousand years.

Cotton was shipped through this port in the early 1800's as it was at Carrabelle. Apalachicola, with forty-three cotton warehouses at the time, became the third-largest cotton port on the gulf coast, just behind New Orleans and Mobile. The Apalachicola River extends three hundred miles to Columbus, Georgia, which made Apalachicola the perfect place to transfer cotton to mills in New England and overseas to mills and lace manufacturing centers in England, France, and Belgium.

The comforts of air conditioning we enjoy today can be traced back to Apalachicola and the yellow fever epidemic of 1841. John Gorrie, a local physician, thought that cooling his patients would give them a greater chance of recovering, and he began to design a device that would lower the temperature of the air. By 1851, he had built a machine that cooled the air and created ice as a by-product. It was Gorrie’s invention that formed the basis from which today’s air conditioners were created.

During World War II, this area was used as a training camp similar to the one at Carrabelle, and rows of metal huts lined the beaches. At that time, St. George Island was twenty-eight miles long. In 1954, however, a channel was cut through the island, creating two separate barrier islands, making it easier and quicker for shrimpers to get out into the gulf. Now the islands are known as St. George Island, a resort community accessible by bridge, and Little St. George Island, a state park and the site of the lighthouse. The smaller island is ten miles long and can only be reached by boat. Shelling is good here, loggerhead sea turtles nest on the beach during the summer, and many birds visit, especially during spring and fall migration periods. Pine trees on the island were once used to gather turpentine. The stills operated in the early 1900s and again from the 1940s into the early 1950s.

Today, Apalachicola is known for its oysters and about ninety percent of the commercially harvested oysters come from here. People began harvesting oysters here way back in the 1850s, and it’s still one of the main industries along with shrimping. Additionally, Tarpon Springs, known as the sponge capital of the world, once shared its fame with Apalachicola. From the mid-1870s until the early twentieth century, Apalachicola’s sponging industry ranked third in the state. The sponging industry was brought to this country by the Greeks and they first started harvesting sponges here in Apalachicola. Their migration headed south to Carrabelle, to Cedar Key and finally Tarpon Springs.

The atmosphere of downtown Apalachicola will take you back to the turn of the century. The lack of shopping malls is delightful, and I think the residents would like to keep it that way.

Well, back to the lighthouse...I walked up about eight steps, then my common sense took over, telling me to retreat slowly from this unstable situation. This would be a bad place to be in trouble, with no one around and miles from the mainland. I didn’t want to end up like one lighthouse keeper who fell from the tower while painting in 1875 and died four hours later. The staircase had been ripped from its pinning and rested on the floor where sand had washed in and piled up in a small dune. Some of the steps had cracked and separated from the center pole. The twisted ironwork leaned against the inside wall of the lighthouse, which kept it from collapsing altogether.

The keeper's house is totally gone and the last few hurricanes of 2005 also toppled the lighthouse. The assistant keeper’s house burned sometime in the 1940s. These are the last remnants of a long-lived tradition. It was a strange feeling standing there, knowing that lighthouse keepers dedicated their entire lives to this place. Children grew up here and even went to school on the island. Now Nature is taking this land back for herself.

Keeper Edward G. Porter lived on the island and took care of the lighthouse for twenty years until his death in 1913. He loved the island so much, he bought the entire 1,640 acres for $500 and raised his six children there.

©Roger Bansemer

Cape St George Lighthouse Post Card
This was a post card of the lighthouse during its heyday.

Cape St. George lighthouse toppled
photo by Debbie Hooper


UPDATE
Cape St. George Lighthouse
photo from "www.lighthousefriends.com"

Cape St. George lighthouse rebuilt

The St. George Lighthouse Association mounted an heroic effort to save the lighthouse after it fell during hurricane Dennis on July 10, 2005 . Only six months after the tower fell, excavation equipment recovered 24,000 bricks and other pieces of the lighthouse and by barge brought them to nearby Eastpoint. Volunteers cleaned the recovered bricks and have reconstruct the lighthouse the light at the County Park on St. George Island which is accessible by car. Before the lighthouse could only be reached by boat. This was a great effort by the citizens of the Apalachicola area and they are to be congratulated for such a large and difficult undertaking.

We visited the lighthouse again in early 2011 and the lighthouse had been finished as well as the new keepers house and what a beautiful job they did on bringing it back to life again after it toppled into the Gulf. The lighthouse and keepers house is open to the public and it's the highlight of St. George Island. Be sure to visit and support them when you're in the area.

Here's a short video I did when we visited you might enjoy watching.

cape-st-george-lighthouse-map.jpg (46818 bytes)

©Roger Bansemer