Digest>Archives> February 1996

The Leaning Tower of Florida

By Sandra Shanklin


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That's the subject of a poster distributed by John Lee of Florida's Apalachicola Times Newspaper.

The poster also says that several Hurricanes in 1985 took out the primary dune line in front of the lighthouse. It states that several years later, "The Storm of the Century" eroded much of the beach front.

Originally, we must have gone out there to take our photos somewhere between those two occurrences. There was no dune line between Cape St. George Lighthouse and the beach, but the beach was wide. The Coast Guard took us over. It is not possible to dock on the lighthouse side of the Island as much of the time it is too shallow to even jump overboard and wade in. Most of the time the Gulf is too rough also. So, we docked on the opposite side of Little St. George Island. We had to walk the distance of at least a mile across the island to the lighthouse. Now, we have walked much further to lighthouse, and glad to, just to see the sight of it. But, picture this: Florida, on one of the hottest days in August... sun beating down, not much of a breeze, biting bugs as only Florida has. On top of that, we were warned to look out for alligators, snakes and wild pigs. A sweaty miserable hike.

We walked across the island and came out on the beach. As soon as the lighthouse came into view, we knew it was worth the discomfort. That beautiful white tower, pristine white sands, dunes covered with sea oats and a blue sky with puffy white clouds. The old keepers house remained, the walls gone, maybe the result of those 1985 hurricanes. The framing, the roof intact, a gorgeous fireplace. At that time, it might have been restorable. A photographer's dream. We shot many rolls of film which ended up as many good photos.

Our job done, we hiked back across the island in that awful heat and humidity, bugs buzzing all around us and biting flies doing what they do.

At a later date, we heard there had been some damage to the foundation of the lighthouse in that "Storm of the Century." We were unaware that Hurricanes Erin and Opal had damaged it until we took part in a Seafood Festival in Apalachicola the first weekend of November. We were shocked to see the poster photo of the leaning lighthouse.

We wanted to do what we could do to see the poster photo of the leaning lighthouse.

We wanted to do our share to help save the lighthouse and of course get back to take some photos.

The Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve graciously agreed to take us to Little St. George in their boat. So on a beautiful Wednesday, we went to the island in their boat piloted by Jimmy Moses. It was a 20-30 minute ride in choppy waters and pretty chilly out on the sea. Due to low tides the pier was well over our heads. We had to climb up a ladder and crawl onto the pier. Jimmy suggested we watch where we put our hands as the pelicans had freshly whitewashed the pier. I can tell you from personal experience, that it smelled mighty fishy.

We were amazed at how little damage Hurricane Opal had inflicted on the pier, just a few boards missing. When we came to the end of it, the sand had washed away and it was a four foot drop to the beach. Thanks to a few long exposed bolts to step on, and helping hands, these two out of shape photographers managed the transition from the pier to the beach.

We thought we would have to walk a mile or so to the lighthouse, but Florida in November is a far cry from Florida in August. Cool dry air, in the 70's, there were a lot of mosquitos, but we were resigned to it. As luck would have it, Jimmy had the keys to two large padlocks on the door at the end of a boathouse. As the doors creaked open, they revealed our transportation to the lighthouse, an old Chevy truck, with a damaged muffler. It had seen better days and was noisy, but certainly much better than walking across the island. As we crossed the island, I wondered if we would see the lighthouse still standing or in a pile of rubble.

Our relief was granted as we came around the last corner and through the trees we could see the old beacon of hope still standing, although at a crazy canted angle. Jimmy said that every time he would come over to the island, he would wonder if he would see the old tower still standing. Actually, we were surprised that the tower looked so white and majestic, gleaming in the rays of the sun. As we got closer, we noticed that the door was at least four feet above the steps and we could see daylight underneath the lighthouse. The roof of the old keepers house was at least half torn off and in a pile of rubble. The poor little oil house had been cracked in half by the force of the water and sand that had washed over into it. I think the sight of the oil house brought home the force of Hurricane Opal to us. The dunes were gone and there were no sea oats this year. The trees on the island were burnt brown from the salt water. Although breathtaking, it was not the beautiful sight of a few years ago. We walked around the station, taking our photos. It made us sad to see what had happened to this historic light station.

I got brave and decided to crawl underneath the higher side of the bottom of the tower. It was kind of scary and claustrophobic to crawl on my stomach under the bricks of the base of the tower. Although I was pretty confident that it wouldn't fall on me at that precise second, it just felt like it would. I took several photos of the stairway, still hanging from the top of the tower. My husband, Bob, said he would stay outside with his camera ready to take that historic picture if the lighthouse, should it collapse on me with my feet sticking out like the Wicked Witch of the West. I had the distinct feeling of relief as I began to slide out. Although I could have gotten out more easily by using the lighthouse as leverage, I did not, as I had the awful feeling that I would pull it down on me and Bob surely would get the Pulitzer Prize in photography.

Seriously, as we walked away, back to the truck, we were reluctant to leave, we wanted to stay and somehow protect that old guardian of the sea. On our way home, silently our minds wondered if our critically old friend would still be there on our next visit to Little St. George Island.

Editors note: Photos of the Cape St. George Lighthouse as seen in this article can be ordered from the Shanklins by calling them at 904-862-4069 or writing to them at Bob & Sandra Shanklin, 517 Thornhill Road, Fort Walton Beach, FL 32547.

You can also order from them for $6.95 plus $3.00 shipping, "Bob and Sandra's List of All Existing U.S. Lighthouses."

This story appeared in the February 1996 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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