|St. Marks, FL|
Description: Roughly twenty-five miles south of Tallahassee is found Florida’s Big Bend region where the state’s Gulf coastline changes from a north-south direction to an east-west direction. A river empties into the Gulf at this point, and it was here that an early settlement was established by the Spanish. The founding date of the settlement probably occurred on the feast day of St. Marks, as that name was applied to both the town and the river. In 1818, Andrew Jackson captured St. Marks from the Spanish, and three years later, control of Florida was officially transferred from Spain to the United States.
In 1828, William P. Duval, who succeeded Andrew Jackson as governor of the Florida Territory, encouraged Joseph M. White, a territorial delegate to Congress, to petition for the construction of a lighthouse at St. Marks. White contacted the chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce with the plea, and on May 23, 1828, an act appropriating $6,000 for the construction of St. Marks Lighthouse was passed.
The contract for the lighthouse was awarded to Winslow Lewis, and under his direction Benjamin Beal and Jairus Thayer constructed a tower at a cost of $11,765. The Collector of Customs for St. Marks refused to accept the lighthouse as it was built with hollow walls, a practice that was not yet widely accepted. Calvin Knowlton, Lewis’ partner, supervised the construction of a solid, replacement tower, which was accepted by the finicky collector in January 1830. Samuel Crosby became the first keeper of St. Marks Lighthouse, assuming responsibility for the tower’s numerous oil lamps.
Under the 1832 Treaty of Payne's Landing, Florida’s Seminole Indians were to relocate west of the Mississippi River by 1835. However, when 1835 arrived, the Indians refused to leave, and the Second Seminole Indian War, which would last for seven years, erupted. During the first two years of the war, the lighthouses at Mosquito Inlet and Cape Florida were attacked. Fearing for the safety of his family, Keeper Crosby requested that a detachment of soldiers be stationed near St. Marks Lighthouse. When his request was denied, Crosby asked for an escape boat that he could use in case of an attack, but again his petition was not granted. Fortunately, no attack was made on St. Marks Lighthouse during Crosby’s tenure, which ended in 1839.
In 1837, the twenty-mile-long Tallahassee-St. Marks Railroad, Florida's first, was conceived and financed by plantation owners to aid in transporting their cotton crops to the port at St. Marks. The cars were initially pulled by mules, but in the 1850s locomotives were purchased to aid the cotton trade.
As the port of St. Marks was growing, the land protecting the lighthouse from the Gulf was shrinking. By 1842, erosion was threatening the tower, and a new lighthouse was erected farther inland. The third St. Marks Lighthouse, which still stands today, rests on a base of limestone rocks taken from Fort San Marcos de Apalache. The stout walls are four feet thick at the bottom, and taper to a thickness of eighteen inches at the lantern room. The sturdy construction saved the lives of Keeper John Hungerford and his family, when a hurricane struck in September of 1843. The fierce winds and accompanying tidal surge destroyed the nearby town of Port Leon and inflicted substantial damage on St. Marks, located farther upriver.
Nature had taken its shot at the lighthouse, and man was next. Before the Civil War reached St. Marks, the customs collector had removed all valuable items from the lighthouse. The dwelling and tower were used by both sides during the conflict. Confederate forces initially used the sturdy dwelling as a barracks and a fortress, while the tower served as a lookout. The lighthouse was bombarded by Union ships on June 15, 1862, and a year later Union sailors returned and burned the wooden steps in the tower to prevent Confederates from spying on their activities. When Union forces landed near the lighthouse in 1865 to march on Tallahassee, they discovered that the retreating Confederates had burned the dwelling and set off multiple charges in holes they had drilled in the tower. One blast tore an eight-foot hole in the tower, while other blasts succeeded in only dislodging several outer layers of brick from the tower.
After the end of the conflict, the tower was repaired between September and December of 1866, and a new fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed in the lantern room, allowing Keeper David Kennedy to place the light back in operation on January 7, 1867. A new dwelling for the keeper was not completed until 1871.
During a hurricane in September 1873, water inundated the dwelling, forcing the keepers and their families to seek refuge in the tower.
Charles Fine served as keeper from 1892 until his death in 1904, when he was succeeded by his wife, Sarah. Lela, the youngest of Fine’s eight children, was born and raised at the lighthouse and eventually married John Y. Gresham, who became keeper of the lighthouse in 1918 and served longer than any other keeper. The Gresham children were raised in relative isolation at the lighthouse, and a private schoolteacher lived with the family to provide a formal education. One teacher, Eugene W. Roberts from Mississippi, became enamored with one of the Gresham daughters and eventually married her when she turned twenty-three. Another of the daughters became interested in a fisherman from St. Marks, who frequented the waters near the lighthouse. Knowing her father would not approve of the relationship, the daughter met the fisherman in secret and eventually eloped with him. Their marriage sadly ended in divorce, just as Keeper Gresham predicted it would.
During the Gresham's service, the area around the lighthouse was incorporated into St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, which encompasses some 68,000 acres that serve as wintering habitat for migratory birds. The Greshams continued to serve at the lighthouse after the Coast Guard assumed responsibility for the nation’s lighthouses in 1939. Alton T. Gresham, son of Keeper John Gresham, joined the Coast Guard and in 1957 was assigned to St. Marks Lighthouse, where he served until the station was automated in 1960.
In 2000, the Coast Guard spent $150,000 to repair and stabilize the lighthouse. Congress passed an act in June 2006 that transferred the lighthouse from the Coast Guard to the Fish and Wildlife Service, however, the transfer could not be completed until lead-contaminated soil around the lighthouse was removed. Historic St. Marks Lighthouse and the surrounding eight acres were finally transferred to the Fish and Wildlife Service on October 10, 2013. An official transfer ceremony, that included a band, a color guard and descendants of the original lighthouse keepers, was held on March 28, 2014.
Using grant money, the Fish and Wildlife Service had the Fresnel lens removed from atop St. Marks Lighthouse in November 2014 so the lantern room could be restored. The lens was transported to Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse, where a team of volunteers spent over 500 hours cleaning the historic artifact before it was returned home the following March and placed on display in St. Marks Wildlife Refuge’s visitors center.
Located in St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. The lighthouse is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Grounds open, tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Grounds open, tower closed.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
To take the popular photo of the lighthouse reflecting in the pond that lies east of the lighthouse, a walk through soggy marshland is required. The best time for this shot is in the morning, not the late afternoon when we were there. It is worth getting your feet wet to capture this great view of the lighthouse, but be aware that you might be jeopardizing more than your favorite pair of shoes. On our way out of the refuge, we were a bit shocked to observe an alligator or two sunning themselves not too far from the lighthouse. You might want to practice your serpentine maneuvers before heading into the marsh.
See our List of Lighthouses in Florida
Pictures on this page copyright Alan-PJ Culley, Nick Baldwin, Gil Mitchell, used by permission.