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 Im sure at times theyre ferocious. If
we hadnt 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 wasnt 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
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 Ive 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
degreesanother 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 Gorries invention that formed
the basis from which todays 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 its 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,
Apalachicolas 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
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
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 didnt 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
keepers 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.
This was a post card of the lighthouse during its heyday.
photo by Debbie Hooper
photo from "www.lighthousefriends.com"
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.