sgioldlighthouse
Photo by Debbie Hooper, JoeBay.com

The Cape St. George Lighthouse stood at the southern-most tip of “Little” St. George Island in the Gulf of Mexico. The island is 8 miles offshore of Apalachicola in the Florida Panhandle.

Built in 1852, this 153-year-old veteran of hurricanes, wars, and erosion collapsed on October 21, 2005.

The first lighthouse on St. George Island was built in 1833 on the western tip of the island, at the Gulf’s channel toward the port of Apalachicola.  Difficult to see by ships approaching from the eastern Gulf, when the 65-foot tall light was damaged by storms in 1846, it was decided to rebuild the lighthouse at the island’s southern cape.

The second light, completed in 1848, was about 75 feet tall and made using materials from the 1833 lighthouse. It lasted three years, until it was flattened by a hurricane in August of 1851, which also destroyed the Cape San Blas and Dog Island lighthouses.

This third light was completed in 1852; it stood farther inland from the previous light, and pine pilings driven deep into the sand were used as a foundation. It was “built to last.”

Its light was turned off during the Civil War so as not to aid Yankee ships and it was not until August 1, 1865 that lighthouse keeper James Reilly relit the beacon. The third order Fresnel lens suffered some damage during the war, and was replaced in 1889.

In 1949, the Coast Guard removed the Fresnel lens and installed an automated light and lighthouse keepers were no longer needed, although the keeper’s house and oilhouse remained on the island.

Beginning in 1992, storms and natural erosion had once again placed the lighthouse in peril.

1992’s Hurricane Andrew pulled a major part of the beach area surrounding the Cape St. George Lighthouse back into the Gulf. The Coast Guard, realizing that the lighthouse might be lost, deactivated the light in 1994.

Before nature could build the beach sand back up around the lighthouse, Hurricane Opal struck in 1995. The resulting powerful tidal surge swept around the lighthouse, forcing it to move from its foundation. As the lighthouse settled into the sand, the iron circular staircase inside was torn from the walls, and the tower developed its lean. The oilhouse and the keeper’s house were also severely damaged by Hurricane Opal.

Photos of the Cape St. George Lighthouse, listing drunkenly at over 7°, became the unofficial graphic of the island. The entry door was boarded over, and “Danger!” signs were placed on the lighthouse. This historic Florida Lighthouse seemed doomed.

Around 1995, Apalachicola Times editor John Lee began the “Save The Light” campaign; a local group formed The Cape St. George Lighthouse Society, and between local and tourist donations, artist paintings donations, and funding from the Florida Department of State Grants, the group managed to raise over $200,000 by 1999.

Contractor Bill Grimes, using a backhoe, slowly excavated sand from around the base of the lighthouse on one side. After many days, the lighthouse settled into a vertical position. With the lighthouse level, he then drilled through the four-foot thick concrete walls at the base, inserting fiberglass reinforcing bars. A corrugated ring was placed around the base, and filled with concrete, forming an island around the base.  In 2002, the Cape St. George Lighthouse Society was dissolved and the lighthouse was deemed restored.

But storms and erosion once again surrounded the Cape St. George Lighthouse with the Gulf of Mexico’s swirling water. By spring 2005 the lighthouse sat 20 feet out into the water, completely engulfed and the concrete platform Mr. Grimes poured had begun to see the effects of the wave action. On October 21, 2005 the lighthouse finally collapsed into the Gulf of Mexico.

The St. George Lighthouse Association, established in 2004 to “rescue the light”, worked with the State of Florida DEP to salvage the pieces of the fallen light. The lighthouse was rebuilt at the center of St. George Island and opened to the public in December of 2008.

In 2011, the St. George Lighthouse Association completed construction of a replica of the original Keeper’s House next to the lighthouse.  The building houses the Lighthouse Museum and a boutique Gift Shop.