St. Marks lighthouse like all other Florida
lighthouseshave had their share of problems. The first one, built in 1829, was so
poorly constructed that it was not accepted by the lighthouse board. Lighthouse plans
called for solid walls, but the contractor built it with hollow walls, so another
lighthouse was built in 1831. Beach erosion toppled this second structure, and another one
was built in 1842. Thats the one still standing today on a twelve-foot-deep base of
limestone rocks taken from nearby Fort San Marcos de Apalache.
A brutal hurricane swept over the St. Marks area in 1843 and flattened everything in
sight except the lighthouse tower. The keeper and his family survived by clinging to the
upper levels of the tall structure, but fifteen others who had sought shelter in the
During the Civil War, the Confederates tried to blow up the
St. Marks lighthouse and seriously
damaged the base of the tower. Despite all its problems, St. Marks has survived and stands
like a jewel in the midst of a sixty-five-thousand-acre wildlife refuge. Each time I have
been there, it has been warm and sunny. Egrets and herons were everywhere, quietly fishing
for their breakfast. I have never experienced such a peaceful place, the stillness and
silence broken only by the occasional hum of a mullet boat motoring by. Thank goodness
there are still places like this for us to enjoy. St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge was
established in 1931 to set aside an area for thousands of wintering waterfowl. Levees,
bridges, and culverts were constructed to create a huge network of freshwater pools for
these winter visitors.
The St. Marks lighthouse was automated in 1960 and is maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard, as are
all lighthouses. I was lucky enough to be there when two Guardsmen were checking the
light. They allowed me to follow them to the top of the eighty-foot-tall lighthouse where
the fifth-order Fresnel lens glimmered in the sunlight, looking much like a sculptured
glass pineapple. The St. Marks lighthouse is one of those special places where you can sit for a very
long time and just absorb the beauty of the surroundings punctuated by the lovely white
tower. Of the thirty Florida lighthouses, this is the one that best fits the description
"picture-perfect." The way the dark oak trees cradle the white lighthouse makes
for a magnificent contrast.
Ive always thought that alligators have this Mona-Lisa-of-the-wild kind of smile.
You cant tell if theyre happy, angry, full, or hungry. Their eighty teeth can
exert three thousand pounds of pressure per square inch when they close their jaws, so I
never assume theyre full. Over a million alligators are roaming around Florida now,
and you can find them just about anywhere. Even with this healthy population, only about
three people in the state are attacked each year.
In the wild, alligators can live to between thirty and thirty-five years of age and can
grow up to fourteen feet long. The female lays twenty to fifty eggs, and the new mother is
very protective of her offspring. Alligators dont like salt water, but the ponds and
wetlands by the lighthouse are fresh. Theres a good chance you will see them sunning
themselves on the edge of the ponds or just off the road. One thing is very
importantdont feed them. As they become familiar with humans as a source of
food, they become less apprehensive and more aggressive. Your arm, instead of that
marshmallow or piece of bread, could end up being their lunch.
After gaining admission to the refuge at the visitors center, it is a seven-mile drive
through the wetlands until you come to the lighthouse. If you have a boat, there is a ramp
so you can go fishing or simply motor out and view the lighthouse. The interior isnt
open to the public except on special occasions, but a trip to the site is certainly worth
the effort. Bring your lunch and enjoy the day.
© Roger Bansemer