Digest>Archives> June 2004

Florida’s Cape Saint George Lighthouse

A Falling Treasure

By Alex Crawford


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Photo by: Alex Crawford

Last week on an ecotrip to the Cape Saint George Island Lighthouse we discovered that the concrete foundation under the lighthouse has fallen victim to Mother Nature again. Over this past week severe storm cells packing 40 knot straight line winds have struck the beach of Cape Saint George Island with a potentially damaging storm surge. The base of the magnificent tower now sits in the surf, completely surrounded by water on the southernmost point of the island. This wonderful old lighthouse is again in imminent danger of falling into the northern Gulf of Mexico.

In the late 1990’s, a private association of concerned citizens formed the Cape Saint George Lighthouse Society to raise money to save the lighthouse from falling down. The forces of hurricane winds and waves over the years had undermined the original pine log pilings and caused the light to lean over 14 degrees from vertical to the southwest. Considerable private and public funds were raised and a contractor was hired to “save the light.” Since there are no architectural blueprints or specifications for restoring 152-year-old, 750-ton, 74-foot-high lighthouses, the job was a challenging one. New pilings were driven down to bedrock. A 10-foot concrete parapet was poured with fiberglass rebars, seawall pilings and steel sheathing. Today, the concrete parapet and sheathing are no longer there and, to the naked eye, the lighthouse looks to have a slight lean westerly. The clock is ticking at the speed of light and time is of the essence.

The State of Florida has ownership of the light and the site is physically located within the Apalachicola National Estuarine Reserve (ANEER). Several concerned citizens have begun preliminary discussions with organizations that could help save the light again. Appropriate state elected officials, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the State Historic Preservation Society, the estuarine reserve people and others who were instrumental in the previous save the light effort have been informed. The urgency of this crisis situation has been communicated to the right folks. According to John Lee, founder of the original Cape Saint George Lighthouse Society, there exists today a list of over 580 individuals and organizations from 46 states and 3 foreign countries that contributed in some way to the overall effort to save the light in the late 1990’s. It may be necessary that these caring and generous folks will be asked to stand up again to fight the good fight.

There are several complex issues that must be solved to develop a new “fix” plan. The last effort was a dramatic learning experience. Because the lighthouse sits in the surf on the beach, the logistics of simply transporting construction equipment to the job site is highly problematic. The waters in front of the lighthouse are shallow, creating considerable waves and surf, especially with prevailing winds out of the south in summer. Getting a barge on the beach to offload a backhoe would be a dicey situation. Previous attempts resulted in a sunken barge. The bay side of the island is also shallow, even for small boats at high tide. Moving heavy equipment from the bay side across the island to the Gulf side is over a mile of soft sand and would raise environmental questions. Summer is turtle nesting season in the Florida panhandle and on the beaches of Cape Saint George Island, no doubt requiring necessary permits to be issued by appropriate government authorities prior to the start of the restoration work. The last time around the bureaucratic process moved at the speed of cold molasses.

One proposed solution is to build a cofferdam around the light and pump the seawater out. Pilings would be driven around the perimeter at the base and a seawall would be installed to keep water out. Mother Nature is a formidable opponent.

It is entirely possible that the first tropical storm of this coming summer could splash the lighthouse into the Gulf of Mexico. Given the significance of this most famous, historical lighthouse, a small piece of our collective souls would be lost forever.

This story appeared in the June 2004 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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