Cape San Blas Lighthouse

When I was a kid my family went to Port St Joe every year for our vacation and one of my favorite things to do while we were there was to explore the beach around the Cape San Blas lighthouse.

We visited the lighthouse back in July and even after all of these years I was just as fascinated as I was when I was a kid.

The lighthouse sits right out on the tip of the elbow on Cape San Blas and the beach out front has always been a great place to find shells and driftwood.

The first time I ever walked along the beach there I found several really old bricks washed up along the shore.

I talked to a local and learned that this is actually the 4th lighthouse to stand here and that the bricks are from the three previous lighthouses.

Being a history buff I wanted to learn as much as possible about the lighthouses and was fascinated by what I learned.

In the early 1800s the City of St Joseph (now known as Port St Joe) was the largest city in all of Florida. Located right on the shore of St Joe Bay, a deep water port, the city attracted many wealthy investors and within a short time had a population of almost 12,000 people.

The city was planned well and was a beautiful place to live.

Apalachicola, just 24 miles down the road was built at the mouth of the Apalachicola River and in order for the two towns to compete commercially the promoters of St Joseph developed Florida's first railroad.

"The tracks connected to nearby Lake Wimico, where steamboats loaded with cotton and other goods coming down the Apalachicola River could detour into the lake and offload cargo. The railroad tracks then extended down to the wharf on St Joe Bay where their cargo could then be loaded onto waiting ships.

In 1836, because of the ships coming in and out of the Bay, requests were made for two lighthouses to be built. One at the entrance of the Bay and the other out on the Cape's elbow to mark treacherous shoals.

Due to budget constrictions only one lighthouse was built - the one at the entrance to the Bay.

In 1847 new requests were made for a second lighthouse to be built on the elbow of the Cape and the request was granted - with one condition.

The old lighthouse was to be torn down and materials from it were to be used to build the new one.

A site on the cape that was "deemed to be entirely secure from overflow or inundation" was chosen and an 85 foot tower was erected.

The tower had a revolving light apparatus and was completed in April of 1848.

Unfortunately, the lighthouse collapsed during a storm in August of 1851.

A year later Congress designated $12,000 for a new, brick lighthouse to be built.

Due to an outbreak of yellow fever and delays in obtaining the lantern the light wasn't lit until November of 1855.

Lighthouse keeper, Joseph Ridlin was transferred from Dog Island to man the lighthouse.

But... on August 30, 1856 another hurricane struck.

A Lighthouse Board report described the destruction inflicted on the station. "The sea rose so high that the waves struck the floor of the keeper’s dwelling, elevated 8 feet above the ground, and about 14 feet above the ordinary tides. A lagoon now occupies the site of the lighthouse."

In 1857, Congress allocated $20,000 more for a third brick tower, which was first lit on May 1, 1858.

Once the Civil War began the Confederate lighthouse superintendent had the lens removed from the before Union forces could claim it. During the war, the keeper’s dwelling and the wooden portions of the tower were burned.

It wasn't until July 23, 1865, that repairs were made, a new lens was supplied and the lighthouse was once again operational.

In 1869 the sea began encroaching on the lighthouse. Money was requested from Congress for a jetty to be built in front of the lighthouse but Congress was unable to supply the needed funds.

By 1881 the sea was washing against the base of the lighthouse and on July 3, 1882 the sea undermined the base of the lighthouse and it toppled into the Gulf.

In 1883 Congress allotted $35,000 to build yet another lighthouse. It was to be an iron skeleton and was constructed in the North. After construction it was loaded onto a ship to be delivered.

Except the ship carrying the lighthouse sank. The good news was the wreck was in shallow water and most of the lighthouse was salvaged.

In 1885 the light was once again lit.

The new 98 foot tower was placed 1,500 feet from the water but by 1890 only 144 feet of sand remained between the shore and the tower.

In October of 1894 another storm ate the remaining beach away and left the lighthouse standing in the Gulf.

A decision was made to move the lighthouse to Black's Island, in the middle of St Joe Bay.

Work to dismantle the lighthouse started in 1896 but not long after the dismantling began money ran out.

While the Lighthouse Board were deciding what to do, the beach began to build back up in front of the lighthouse and it was decided to leave the lighthouse where it stood.

The tower stood strong until 1916 when yet another hurricane hit. The beach in front of the lighthouse was stripped away and again plans were made to move the tower further inland.

The tower was moved a quarter of a mile inland and on January 22, 1919 the new light was lit.

As if the problems the lighthouse itself faced weren't enough, the problems of the lighthouse keepers were just as bad.

It was very isolated out on the Cape and in 1832, lighthouse keeper Ray Linton found "the lonely vigil and wide expanse of the Gulf too great a burden," and took his own life.

In 1836 a keeper named Marler lived at the light with his family of five. He was outside in a workstation when he was stabbed and killed. His six year old daughter discovered his body when she went to call him for the noon meal.

The identity of the killer was never discovered.

In 1981 the lighthouse was automated and a five year permit was given to the US Air Force to use and maintain the property.

Once the permit ended another permit, this one for 25 years, was given but the two keeper's residences were overlooked in the permitting process and the houses were neglected.

In 1996 the light was deactivated and in 1998 the residence that was closest to the shore was severely damaged by Hurricane Earl.

In 1999 the Air Force assumed control of both keeper's dwellings and both were moved farther inland, next to the lighthouse.

The dwelling in the best condition was restored at that time while the one with the most damage wasn't restored until 2005.

The lighthouse and keeper's residences now sit quite a ways from the shore.

And it's good to see that the Keeper's residences are again being restored

Walking down the beach in front of the lighthouse it's easy to see how the Gulf has eroded the sand, put it back again and then the process of erosion has started all over again.

The Gulf is amazing like that. Taking away one day and giving back the next.

Walking along in front of the lighthouse is heaven for driftwood lovers like myself.
The old trees and stumps are absolutely gorgeous.

We found this Osprey nest not too far down the beach but unfortunately didn't see the Osprey.

And the beach is a haven for nesting turtles.

Over the years I've found many bricks along this beach and finding them has always felt like finding treasure to me.

It had been many years since I'd visited there and I was telling the Island King how much I'd love to find another brick.

He warned me that I found those bricks a LONG time ago and that I probably wouldn't find any the day we were there.

But as we walked along the shore I heard him gasp and then bend down to pick something up out of the water.

And there it was. Another treasure from the past, a gift from the Gulf to me.

If you're ever in the Port St Joe area, make the trip out to the lighthouse.
You won't be disappointed.

The references and quotes here can be found at these two websites.