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 Cape San Blas, FL    
Lighthouse accessible by car and a short, easy walk.Lighthouse open for climbing.Interior open or museum on site.
Description: Not one, not two, not three, but rather a total of four lighthouses have marked the southern part of Florida’s Cape San Blas. The cape protrudes from the southernmost point of Florida’s Panhandle and resembles an L-shaped arm, similar to Massachusetts’ Cape Cod. In 1836, requests were made to build two lighthouses on the cape, one at the northern tip to mark the entrance to St. Joseph Bay, and a second at the cape’s elbow to mark treacherous shoals that extended several miles south of the cape. Due to a tight budget, only St. Joseph Bay Lighthouse was built at the cape’s tip.

When trade in the bay diminished after the abandonment of the town of St. Joseph, permission was granted in 1847 to build a lighthouse at the cape’s elbow, on the condition that St. Joseph Bay Lighthouse would be discontinued, dismantled, and used to build the new lighthouse. A site that was "deemed to be entirely secure from overflow or inundation" was selected for the construction of an eighty-five-foot tower using $8,000 that Congress had appropriated on March 3, 1847. Edward Bowden from nearby Franklin County was awarded the contract for the tower, while the revolving lighting apparatus, which employed ten lamps and fifteen-inch reflectors, was supplied by Winslow Lewis. Completed in April of 1848, Cape San Blas Lighthouse collapsed during a gale on August 23-24 of 1851. The same storm also destroyed neighboring lighthouses at Cape St. George and Dog Island.

A year after the loss of the first lighthouse, Congress appropriated $12,000 for a second brick tower for the cape. Due to an outbreak of yellow fever and delays in obtaining the lantern and Fresnel lens, the tower was not lit until November 1855, when Keeper Joseph Ridler was transferred from Dog Island. Ten months later, on August 30, 1856, another hurricane struck Cape San Blas. A Lighthouse Board report described the destruction inflicted on the station: "The sea rose so high at that place that the waves struck the floor of the keeper’s dwelling, elevated eight feet above the ground, and about fourteen feet above the ordinary tides. A lagoon now occupies the site of that lighthouse."

Third Cape San Blas Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy State Archives of Florida
On March 3, 1857, Congress allocated $20,000 for a third brick tower, which was equipped with a third-order Fresnel lens and first lit on May 1, 1859. A two-story dwelling was attached to the east side of the lighthouse, and the light, which flashed every ninety seconds, was displayed at a focal plane of ninety-six feet. Following the outbreak of the Civil War, the Confederate lighthouse superintendent had the lens removed from Cape San Blas Lighthouse before Union forces could claim it. During the war, the keeper’s dwelling and the wooden portions of the tower were burned. The lighthouse returned to operation on July 23, 1866, after repairs had been made and a new lens was supplied. Congress didn't provide funds for a new dwelling until July 15, 1870, when $10,000 was appropriated, so in the interim, the keeper was forced to live in the tower's watchroom.

By 1869, the beach in front of the lighthouse had mostly disappeared, and the gulf was starting to threaten the tower. The Lighthouse Board requested $5,000 to build a jetty to stabilize the beach, but a sum of only $2,000 was granted. That amount was deemed insufficient for any kind of protective measure, and no action was taken. The report of the Lighthouse Board in 1881 details the dire condition of the tower: "The sea has been encroaching on this tower until its base is in the water. Brush mattresses were made, pinned down to the sand with small iron screw piles, covered with sand and occasionally blocks of concrete, to further check such encroachment, but the almost constant surf, beating against the mattresses, tore them to pieces. An appropriation for a new tower, further inland is much needed. It is recommended that a skeleton iron tower be erected; then if the sea again encroaches, it could be taken down and reerected."

The brick lighthouse lost the battle with the sea on July 3, 1882, when the "handsome brick tower became undermined, leaned, then cracked" and eventually fell. At this point, the tower was standing in eight feet of water about 200 feet out in the gulf. When it became unsafe to enter the tower, the lens and illuminating apparatus were removed, and a sixth-order light was displayed from a ninety-foot spar erected on the beach. To make matters worse, the station's dwelling was destroyed by a hurricane just two months after the tower collapsed.

In 1883, $35,000 was granted to build an iron skeleton tower as requested by the Lighthouse Board. The tower was fabricated in the North, and then loaded on a ship for its journey to the cape. En route, the ship went down along Florida’s west coast, but fortunately the wreck was in shallow water, and most of the material was salvageable. Work on the two keeper's dwellings and the lighthouse began in September 1884 and was completed the following February, except for the installation of the lens and illuminating apparatus. The tower’s third-order Fresnel lens was first lit on June 30, 1885, showing alternate red and white flashes spaced by thirty seconds.

The new skeleton lighthouse had four iron legs that ran the length of the tower and were tied together with a network of braces. The central column, which housed the spiral staircase, was different from most used at other lighthouses as it did not extend all the way from the lantern room to the ground. Instead, it stopped twenty feet from the ground, and an external metal stairway was used to access the door to the tower. This arrangement would hopefully keep the entrance to the tower above any waters that might encroach on the station. The bottom portion of the tower was also supported by four additional legs that extended midway up the tower.

The ninety-eight-foot tower was originally placed 1,500 feet from the shoreline, but 300 feet of this buffer was lost by 1887, and by 1890 only 144 feet of sand separated the tower from the breaking waves. The tower obviously had to be moved or it too would be lost. Congress provided $20,000 for the task. Originally, the new site was going to be a point on the inside of the cape, about 1.5 miles from where the tower stood. However, obtaining title to the property proved difficult, and on October 8-9 of 1894, a powerful gale destroyed the keeper's dwellings, damaged the iron tower, and left it standing in water.

The decision was then reached to move the tower to Black’s Island, located a few miles north of the cape in St. Joseph Bay. Work on preparing the island and dismantling the lighthouse started in early 1896, but after a couple of weeks of work, funds ran out. Before work recommenced, the Lighthouse Board again changed its mind and decided the lighthouse should just be moved farther north on the cape. Before any action was taken, the beach started to build up around the iron tower, and it was decided to just leave the light where it was. In 1904, the Lighthouse Board was granted permission to use $7,000 of the $20,000 appropriation for relocating the station to construct two new keeper's dwellings.

The tower was safe until a hurricane in 1916 stripped away the beach protecting the lighthouse, and another one the following year left the tower 120 feet offshore. Plans were again made to relocate the tower farther inland, and in 1918 the tower was moved a quarter of a mile from the shore. The light was temporarily discontinued on April 30, 1918 and then shown from its new location for the first time on January 22, 1919.

Life on the cape was obviously difficult for a lighthouse, and it wasn’t much easier for the keepers and their families. The station was quite isolated, with a trip to the nearest settlement requiring a one-way trek of twenty-three miles. Keeper Ray Linton found "the lonely vigil and wide expanse of the Gulf too great a burden," and in 1932, he took his own life. Just the previous year, Keeper Linton had rescued two men and a girl who got into trouble while swimming off the cape.

Six years later another keeper lost his life prematurely at the station. Assistant Keeper Ernest W. Marler, a thirty-eight-year-old father of four children, was attacked and stabbed in a workshop at the station. His six-year-old daughter discovered her father’s body when she went to call him for the noon meal. The identity of the perpetrator was never discovered.

In 1952, a LORAN radio station was installed near Cape San Blas Lighthouse. Later that decade, the Air Force established Test Site D-3 on the majority of the rest of the cape to provide radar tracking capabilities for over-water test and training missions. Steve Barnold spent a year at Cape San Blas as an ET2 (Electronics Technician Second Class) starting in October of 1977. Barnold was responsible for maintaining and repairing the LORAN transmitter and protecting the station from pesky civilians. In 1981, after the LORAN station was deactivated and the lighthouse was automated by the Coast Guard, the Air Force received a five-year permit to use and maintain the lighthouse property. When the permit expired, negotiations were entered into for an extended twenty-five-year agreement. Apparently there was some question over who would care for the keeper's dwellings, and they were excluded from the agreement.

Cape San Blas Lighthouse relocated to Port St. Joe
Photograph courtesy Tom Gurley
The dwellings were left unattended for several years, and they began to deteriorate. In 1996 the lighthouse was deactivated, and two years later, the dwelling that was closest to the shore received considerable damage from Hurricane Earl. In 1999, after the Air Force finally assumed responsibility for the keeper's dwellings, the two structures were moved from their position on the shore to a site next to the tower. The dwelling that was in the best condition was restored at that time, while the second dwelling had to wait until 2005 for its turn.

The restored keeper’s dwellings are evidence of what an attractive piece of history a lighthouse and dwellings can be when proper care were afforded them. The coastline at Cape San Blas continues to lose its battle with the Gulf of Mexico, necessitating another relocation of the lighthouse and dwellings. This photograph shows the position of the dwellings in relation to the shoreline in March 2012.

Hurricane Isaac, which struck the Gulf Coast in August, 2012, caused significant erosion at Cape San Blas, leaving just a fifty-foot buffer between the dwellings and the gulf. Operations at the lighthouse were shut down on October 14, 2012, so preparations for moving the tower and two dwellings by the Air Force, which still owns the property, could begin. In early December, Stone's House Movers relocated the two keeper's dwellings and the oil house 100 feet inland, as a temporary measure.

The City of Port St. Joe and the Gulf County Board of County Commissioners both applied for ownership of the structures. The National Park Service sent a letter on December 21, 2012 announcing that the city had been awarded the lighthouse, but as the city's servers were down, the notification was not received until the 27th. The city plans to create a public park and recreation area called BayPark along the coast of St. Joseph Bay as a new home for the lighthouse. The General Services Administration still has to make the actual transfer, but the announcement will allow fundraising to begin. The gift shop, operated in one of the keeper's dwellings by the St. Joseph Historical Society, was moved into Maddox House in Port St. Joe.

“We at the St. Joseph Bay Historical Society are elated that the city’s application was accepted,” said society president Charlotte Pierce. “We are excited, look forward to it and are honored at the trust placed in us to preserve this piece of our heritage and history.”

In January 2014, the lens was removed from Cape San Blas Lighthouse in preparation for the relocation of the tower. On April 15, 2014, Port St. Joe Commissioners selected GAC Contracting to relocate the lighthouse and keeper's dwellings at a cost of $510,450, which was the lowest bid received for the project. This does not include an estimated expense of $170,000 that will be needed to lower and raise power lines during the move. After the tower had been placed on its side and the two dwellings jacked up, the three structures and an oil house were moved roughly twelve miles from the cape to Port St. Joe on July 15, 2014. Crews worked quickly ahead of and behind the slow-moving convoy to take down and then raise power lines along the route. With the help of a few cranes, the lighthouse was erected at its new home on July 24.

Head Keepers: Francis Avrion (1848 – 1849), Rufus Ballard (1849 – 1851), Joseph Ridler (1855 – 1857), Francis Lee (1859), James Weatherspoon (1859 – 1861), Joseph Leucroft (1866), Braddock Williams (1866 – 1868), Merrill Hussey (1868 – 1869), William H. Parker (1869 – 1871), William G. Cox (1871 – 1873), Henry Humphries (1873 – 1874), Thomas Coleman (1874 – 1876), Demetrius J. Murat (1876 – 1879), Thomas Gordon (1880 – 1882), Benjamin Curry (1882), William D. Archer (1882 – 1886), William Quinn (1886 – 1895), Charles Lupton (1895 – 1902), Walter Andrew Roberts, Sr. (1902 – 1909), William J. Knickmeyer (1909 – at least 1919), J. Ray Linton (at least 1930 - 1932), Sullivan R. White (at least 1935 - 1939), Frank Spongia (1939 - 1942).

References

  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. Annual Report of the Commissioner of Lighthouses, various years.
  3. Lighthouse Service Bulletin, various years.
  4. "Cape San Blas Media Release," Air Armament Center Office of Public Affairs, June 1999.
  5. U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office website.
  6. Lighthouses, Lightships, and the Gulf of Mexico, David Cipra, 1997.

Location: Located in George Gore Park in Port St. Joe.
Latitude: 29.8128
Longitude: -85.3067

For a larger map of Cape San Blas Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: Take Highway 98 to Port St. Joe and then turn toward the bay on Captain Fred's Place, the extension of Fourth Street. You will find George Gore Park and the lighthouse at the end of the road.

The lighthouse is owned by the City of Port St. Joe. Grounds open/tower closed.

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Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, Tom Gurley, used by permission.