Roger Bansemer

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Information and illustrations about St. Joseph Bay lighthouse by artist & author Roger Bansemer.
St. Joseph Bay Lighthouse
Near Port St. Joe, Florida
1838, 1902

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St Joseph Bay Lighthouse © Roger Bansemer
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St. Joseph Bay Lighthouse

During the nineteenth century, Port St. Joe, along with other towns like Apalachicola and Cedar Key, enjoyed the promise of growth from Northern investors and entrepreneurs. The population of Florida doubled between 1870 and 1890, and tourism began to be a major part of the state’s economy. Although most lighthouses were built before this land boom, increased development brought even more ships to Florida’s coasts, and the need for lighthouses became even more important. There were several lighthouses built at Port St. Joe. The first, located at the tip of St. Joseph Peninsula, was called the St. Joseph Bay Lighthouse and was built in 1839. Three years later, a ship pulled into port and spread yellow fever throughout the town of St. Joseph, reducing the population to zero.

If you had lived in St. Joseph at the time, here is what would have happened to you. Three to six days after the ship pulled into port, the disease would have finished incubating, and symptoms would manifest suddenly. It would start with a headache, backache, and fever. Then you would begin to have nausea and vomiting. Your temperature would return to normal for a few days, but then it would rise again. Your skin would turn yellow from an accumulation of yellow bile pigments in your body. Then you would begin to bleed from the nose and to vomit blood (It was called "black vomit."). Your kidneys, liver, and heart would begin to fail, and you would die between the fourth and eighth day after your symptoms began. If by some miracle you survived (and some people did), your convalescence would be quick. The jaundice would persist, but you would be immune to yellow fever for the rest of your life.

A hurricane followed the yellow fever and destroyed most of the buildings in town. In 1842, the lighthouse was shut down because the town was literally abandoned. The St. Joseph Bay Lighthouse stood until 1851, when it was heavily damaged by another hurricane. Remnants of it remained and served as a daymark for some time, and the foundation could still be seen up until World War II.

From time to time, there was talk about the re-establishment of the St. Joseph Bay lighthouse mainly for fishing vessels, many of which sank in the bay. Just after the turn of the twentieth century, in 1902, a new lighthouse was built. Unlike most lighthouses of the time, the St. Joseph Point Lighthouse allowed the keeper and his family to live in the same building as the light. Originally the lighthouse sat above the ground on brick pillars, leaving room for supplies and a large cistern below. Later, this area was walled in to make rooms.

Even though the thought of it today seems a little strange, during World War II, German ships roamed the waters right off the gulf coast. The Coast Guard used the lighthouse as a base while patrolling the coast for enemy spies who would try to come ashore in rubber rafts.

The lighthouse was unmanned again in 1951. It was bought as surplus for three hundred dollars and was moved three miles inland to a small farm, where it was used as a residence and was later made into a barn. During the move, a crane inadequate for the job dropped the lantern room, totally destroying it. Then in 1979, Danny Raffield, a resident of Port St. Joe, bought the old St. Joseph Bay lighthouse and moved it once again thirteen miles to its present location. He then lovingly restored it and converted it into a home, even duplicating the pattern in the wooden walls according to original plans. Much of the woodwork had been torn apart with a crowbar by someone who thought there might be money buried behind the planks. Finely grained, forty-foot-long wooden beams cut from two-hundred-foot-tall trees still remain part of the house’s structure. For several years, Danny is also working on reproducing the lantern room but he told me that years and years ago and I still don't think it's in place even though I've pictured how it should look in the painting abive.

The St. Joseph Bay lighthouse is the only privately owned lighthouse in the entire state. Because it’s a private residence, it’s not open to the public, but it can easily be seen from the street. It’s located at County Road 30 next to Pressnell’s Fish Camp, just south of the intersection of Highway 98, south of Port St. Joe.

© Roger Bansemer

St Joseph Point Lighthouse, Cape San Blas Florida
©Roger Bansemer