Beacon at the refuge
St. Marks’ historic restored lighthouse wins preservation awards
St. Marks, Florida — The lighthouse was abandoned, battered by hurricanes and infested with rats. Termites feasted on plywood floors. Rainwater seeped into the cupola and ran down interior walls. Wooden steps, inside and out, rotted away.
The U.S. Coast Guard relinquished control of the lighthouse and keeper’s quarters to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2013. A fundraising campaign geared up a year later. More than $1.1 million has been raised. The 177-year-old lighthouse perched at the edge of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge was lovingly restored to a level of splendor last observed decades ago.
The refuge and its friends’ group this year earned the 2019 Florida Trust Preservation Award. They had earlier received the 2018 Historic Preservation Award from the Service.
“Members of the local community — the friends’ group, the state historic preservation office, the refuge, local contractors, artisans and craftsmen — all came together to do preservation,” said Rick Kanaski, the Service’s historian for the Southeast Region. “It truly became something that is not only important to the refuge system, but to the entire local community.”
Lighthouses hold talismanic appeal. Of less navigational need in this era of sonar and satellites, the stone spires nonetheless are beloved reminders of a region’s history. Locals proudly embrace their lighthouse even as fewer work in the maritime and fishing industries. Kanaski notes “the personal connection” between beacon and neighbor. Lighthouses also draw tourists. And refuges — St. Marks is the 10th lighthouse managed by the Service’s Southeast Region — parlay the tantalizing allure of a windswept tower into increased visitation and interest in conservation.
“Lighthouses invoke stability, integrity, continuity, reliability,” said Tom Baird, a retired biologist and educator who chaired the lighthouse fundraising committee. “For me, in a world constantly changing, the old St. Marks lighthouse says, ‘I am here. And I will remain.’ It’s nice to think that some things will endure.”
Modern times catch up
Congress, in 1828, authorized $6,000 (the cost ultimately doubled) for a lighthouse to guide ships through Apalachee Bay to the port of St. Marks. Fifteen whale oil lamps alerted mariners up to five miles away. But the elements were never kind to St. Marks. In 1837, a 10-foot tidal wave washed away all structures save the lighthouse and keeper’s dwelling and killed eight. Erosion gnawed at the coastline and prompted construction five years later of the lighthouse that stands today. It sits upon a base of limestone rocks taken from nearby Fort San Marcos de Apalache. A hurricane a year later demolished the lightkeeper’s home and killed 13.
The Civil War proved a foe as intractable as the weather. Union soldiers blockaded the bay and burned the lighthouse stairs to keep Confederates from spying from on high. One thousand Union troops landed near the lighthouse and routed a smattering of Confederates near war’s end.
The light was relit in 1867 and, eventually, raised another 10 feet to its current height of 82 feet. The tower itself was near-impregnable with four foot thick walls at the bottom, 18 inches at the top.
Modernity eventually caught up with St. Marks (which became a national wildlife refuge in 1931). Electricity reached the light soon thereafter ensuring the eventual demise of the keeper’s job. Alton Gresham, who followed his father John into the business, was the last of the lot. In all, 20 keepers, including two women and one African-American man, kept the light burning (except for two Civil War years) for 130 years.
The stately lighthouse joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. A solar-powered white light that blinks every four seconds was installed at the turn of the century. A decade later ownership switched to the Service and the painstaking restoration work began.
“It was pretty gnarly”
A storm pushed through the night before, scattering the birds migrating from Mexico and the Caribbean across the Panhandle. Apalachee Bay remained brown and choppy as the sun rose through clouds. A baby bald eagle clung to a dead pine limb. Alligators sunned on the banks of St. Marks’ fresh and saltwater ponds surrounded by bobolinks, gallinules, snowy egrets and blue-winged teals.
Robin Will, a supervisory refuge ranger, unlocked the keeper’s door and began the lighthouse tour. She crossed the once-rotted plywood floors since replaced with preservation pine from a Georgia barn. She passed deep-set windows repaired with circa-1800s panes and walls free of the oil-based paints that captured the humidity and damaged the building. Historically inaccurate stucco applied to the light’s exterior was also chipped off and replaced with layers of fresh paint able to withstand the salty winds and waves.
“The lighthouse was completely filled with mildew with water running down the sides,” said Will who has been at the refuge since 1979. “Many of the original wooden stairs were rotted through. It was pretty gnarly.”
The repairs are striking; the lighthouse and keeper’s quarters resemble a museum. Century-old furniture and toys (Tiddlywinks, dominoes) adorn the parlor, as do photos of old keepers and their families. A keeper’s office is recreated with roll-top desk, oil lamp, navigation charts and white summer uniform with white cap, black tie and gold-buttoned jacket. Will said the goal was to “keep the flavor of what it was like to live here.”
She unlocks another door and spirals up the stairs to the lighthouse cupola. The centerpost of longleaf pine steadies the acrophobic. Five evenly spaced windows offer a kaleidoscope of maritime views: the live oak below; a trawler on the bay’s horizon; pelicans atop an abandoned dock; the palm-lined Lighthouse Road; and miles of marsh giving way to becalmed bay and undeveloped coastline. All comes into singular, spectacular view in the 10-sided cupola perched atop the sturdy lighthouse. It’s hothouse hot, with the sun magnifying through the glass turret, and dizzying at first. An offer to step out onto the catwalk is declined. Will sops up rivulets of water from the night’s storm with a rag.
The docent remembers her purpose.
“We’re not a historical organization, but we can use the lighthouse to champion land and water protection,” Will said. “We can marry the message of the St. Marks lighthouse with the mission of the refuge and its really important and enduring legacy of conservation.”
Tours of the keeper’s house are offered the first Friday and Saturday of the month; the tower, though, remains off limits. Baird and fundraisers seek another $400,000 to finish the restoration. Walkways, white picket fences and old-timey shutters are needed. The cistern must be repaired. A replica Fresnel lens should be delivered any day. Only then will the St. Marks lighthouse truly shine.
“Lighthouses are a symbol of hope, a beacon in the darkness or storms,” Will said. “We all need a lighthouse.”
Dan Chapman, Public Affairs Specialist
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