By the 1970's the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse on Southwest Florida's Gasparilla Island had fallen into disrepair and nearly fell into the Gulf of Mexico. However, today, it stands proud, entering its third century. It not only serves as a lighthouse, but is a museum dedicated to the area's history.
Opened as the Boca Grande Lighthouse Museum in March of 1999, the building is now one of just six Florida lighthouses which are open to the public.
Lighthouse keepers and their families lived in the lighthouse from the time it was built in 1890 until 1956, when it was automated. Marking the entrance into Charlotte Harbor from the Gulf of Mexico, the 44-foot tall bungalow with its lantern tower and 3.5 order Fresnel lens guided ships through the deep water inlet of Boca Grande Pass into Port Grande continuously for 76 years. Ships for more than 20 countries regularly came to the port on the tiny barrier island of Gasparilla to unload mineral phosphate (used in fertilizer), which was transported via railroad from the mines to Central Florida. In 1979 modern ports in Tampa and elsewhere took over the shipping of Florida phosphate and Port Boca Grande ceased being used for this purpose. The port is used today by Florida Power & Light as a storage terminal for oil to generate power for Southwest Florida.
The sturdy old lighthouse, and its look-alike assistant keepers house survived seven hurricanes over the years, only to fall prey to vandalism and the elements, notably beach erosion, after the lens was removed and the building abandoned by the Coast Guard in 1966. Local residents remember the lighthouse "leaning at a 45 degree angle" with the waters of the Gulf of Mexico lapping at its pilings.
Enter the community of Boca Grande, and along with county and state officials who realized and appreciated the value of saving an important piece of Southwest Florida's history. In 1972 Lee County took over ownership of the lighthouse and surrounding 13 acres and began the long process to save the old building. Florida Power and Light helped the lighthouse survive by pumping sand around the building and building two rock groins along the new shoreline.
Successful in getting the building placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, the Gasparilla Island Conservation and Improvement Association, (GICIA), the island property owner's association, funded its total restoration in 1985-86 with help from the State of Florida and local citizens. In 1986 a 377mm drum lens was installed and the lighthouse was re-commissioned as a working Coast Guard light. In 1988 the lighthouse and surrounding acreage was transferred from Lee County to the State of Florida and became Gasparilla Island State Recreation Area. That same year Florida Power and Light again came to the rescue. The power company built a dune system (with sand from the dredging of the ships channel) on the west side of the lighthouse and installed dune walkovers for beach-goers.
In 1989 a small group of local citizens formed the Barrier Island Parks Society (BIPS), a non-profit, all volunteer citizens support organization for the state park. The group's stated purposes included the installation of a museum of local history in the lighthouse. This goal was reached 10 years later, when the building opened to the public as the Boca Grande Lighthouse Museum. BIPS operates and maintains the Lighthouse Museum for the Florida Park Service.
The $165,000 project to design and install the museum - including an elevator for handicapped people - was funded through a combination of grants from private donors and organizations, grants from the State of Florida and funds raised locally by BIPS through fund-raisers and letter campaigns.
"The Lighthouse Museum is a shining example of what can be accomplished when business, government and citizens join together in a common cause to preserve history," says former BIPS President Fred Berger, who led the fund-raising effort to establish a museum. Fran Mainella, director of the Florida Division of Recreation and Parks commented at the museum dedication that the Lighthouse Museum is the result of "The perfect partnership between the public and private sectors . . . . That this is such a great story that I am sure it will be told not only throughout Florida, but across the nation as well."
Exhibits include displays on the Native Americans who first lived in the area, the Spanish who arrived in the 1500's, the local fishing industry, the history of the lighthouse, the development of the railroad, Port Boca Grande and the town of Boca Grande, tarpon fishing, and geology, flora and fauna of the Charlotte Harbor estuary. Included in a visit to the area are incomparable views of the Gulf, Boca Grande Pass and Charlotte Harbor.
The museums unique gift shop features lighthouse memorabilia and souvenirs, and much more with all sales going to support the museum.
The Lighthouse Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10am to 4pm and is closed major holidays and the month of August. There is a $2 fee per vehicle to enter Gasparilla Island State Recreation Area. The museum charges no admission, but does ask a minimum donation of $1 per person to offset operating expenses. Group tours are also available, for information call the museum at 941-964-0060.
The lighthouse may also be rented for events such as weddings, which take place on the porch of the building overlooking the gulf of Mexico and Charlotte Harbor. Call 941-964-0375 to inquire.
Near the lighthouse in the park is the restored Armory Memorial Chapel, which is available to individuals and organizations to rent for meetings, weddings, receptions etc. Call 941-964-0060 for information.
Gasparilla Island is located halfway between Sarasota and Fort Myers on Florida's southwest coast. It is a 30-34 minute drive off Interstate 75 from either the north or the south.
Guest contributor Marlin Hoeckel is the director of the Boca Grande Lighthouse Museum and the secretary of the Barrier Island Parks Society.
This story appeared in the
March 2000 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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