St. Marks Lighthouse - A Brief History
In the 1820s, the town of St. Marks, Florida (originally known as San Marcos de Apalache) was considered an important port of entry for the prosperous planting region of Middle Florida and some counties of South Georgia. Once the agricultural products reached the new port town, they were loaded aboard boats for shipment to New Orleans and St. Augustine.
There were, however, problems in navigating both the Apalachee Bay and the St. Marks River. In many places both bay and river were shallow, and it was not too uncommon for boats to run aground and/or get mired in the muddy shallows.
The First Lighthouse
In 1828, the Senate Committee on Commerce issued a report, which recognized the town of St. Marks as an official port of entry and recommended the building of a lighthouse in the area. On May 23, 1828, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an act which authorized the construction of a lighthouse at St. Marks and appropriated $6,000 for its construction.
After a survey was completed of the St. Marks area and a site chosen it was discovered that the initial construction sum of $6,000 would be insufficient. The appropriation was increased to $14,000, and by mid-1829 a contract was signed with Winslow Lewis of Boston for the construction of a tower in the St. Marks area for $11,765.
However, the finished product was not accepted by the Collector of Customs for St. Marks, Mr. Jesse H. Williams, because it had been constructed with hollow walls. Williams felt that the tower should be constructed with solid walls and, therefore, refused to accept the work.
Calvin Knowlton was brought in to rebuild the tower. He oversaw its completion, and in 1831, Williams, satisfied that the light was built according to the contract, accepted the work. That same year saw the tower's whale-oil lamps lit for the first time by Samuel Crosby, who had been appointed the first Keeper of the St. Marks Lighthouse the previous year.
This first tower was located near the bay end of the boat canal and is now underwater. Erosion forced the tower to be rebuilt again with double walls in its present location in 1842.
In 1842, erosion threatened the lighthouse and Winslow Lewis was again called in. He was given a contract to move the tower to a safer location. Lewis's contractors dismantled and removed the lantern and illuminating apparatus, then tore down the original 1829–1831 brick tower. Another site was selected farther inland, away from the water, and a new tower was constructed, then the original lantern and illuminating apparatus were reinstalled.
The new tower survived the destructive hurricanes of the 1840s and 1850s, including the disastrous hurricane of September 1843, which destroyed most of the town of Port Leon and caused major damage to the town of St. Marks.
The Civil War - A Light in Peril
By the 1860s a new threat to the lighthouse arose: The Civil War.
In 1865, Confederate troops were stationed near the lighthouse to defend the area against a Union attack. The tower's lighting apparatus had been removed earlier in order to prevent the lighthouse from aiding ships of the Union blockade, which were patrolling the Apalachee Bay.
In March of that year, a Federal fleet of 16 ships appeared off the coast and began to shell the vicinity of the lighthouse in preparation for landing a force. The retreating Confederates attempted to blow up the tower in order to deny it as a lookout for the Union forces, but succeeded in only leaving a 8’ hole, which was repaired. You can see where it was repaired.
On March 4, 1865, soldiers from the 2nd and 99th U.S. colored infantry landed near the lighthouse. They slogged northward to engage Confederate forces at the Battle of Natural Bridge on March 6. The Confederates won and the Union troops withdrew. Tallahassee remained the only southern capital east of the Mississippi not captured by Union forces.
After the Civil War
Though the Union Troops were unsuccessful in destroying the tower, nevertheless, the damaged inflicted was substantial. During the repair process, the tower was heightened to its present focal plane of 82 feet (25 m) above sea level.
A new fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed. This lens has recently been preserved, and it is on display in the Refuge Visitor Center. Later repairs were undertaken to the house and tower and the porch, still extant, was added.
The 20th Century - Big Changes
In 1916 a cistern, kitchen, outhouse, picket fence, boathouse and dock, and a maintenance building were added.
For the first time, the keeper's children were educated by a teacher in a one-room combination house and school room.
In 1931, St. Marks Migratory Bird Refuge was created, as was the road leading to the lighthouse. Also at this time, in 1935, the U.S. Treasury Department issued an instructional list for all keepers of lighthouses.
John Y Gresham retired in 1949 and his son Alton, a member of the Coast Guard, was the first Officer-in-Charge until 1951.
In 1972, the St. Marks Lighthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The light from the Fresnel lens was extinguished in 2000 when the USCG installed a modern solar powered light.
Present Day - A Ship at Sea
Late in 2013, ownership of the St. Marks Lighthouse was transferred from the U.S. Coast Guard to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The official ceremony on the transfer occurred March 28, 2014. Immediate efforts were put in motion by a newly-established Friends’ Lighthouse Fundraising Committee to raise funds necessary for renovations to preserve this coastal landmark.
Initial funding from the Florida Lighthouse Association allowed for an important condition assessment and taking necessary steps to protect the historic Fourth Order Fresnel lens in the lantern room. The condition assessment provided the basis for estimates of costs needed to restore the lighthouse.
The lens was removed from the lantern room in November 2014. Through volunteer efforts by the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse Preservation Association, the lens was faithfully cleaned and conserved and is on display at the Visitor Center.
Follow-up funding was made possible by a Duke Energy Foundation grant and grant funding from the Florida Department of State Division of Historical Resources. These funds were designated for repairs to the lantern room, as well as the larger task of restoration of the lighthouse tower and keeper’s quarters.
The Florida Legislature approved the DOS grant funding, and that money became available in July 2016. The Friends, with assistance of Wilderness Graphics, conducted a successful crowdfunding campaign to raise additional funds needed to supplement the costs of restoring the lantern room. While the restoration of the lantern room was completed in August 2016, the more extensive job of restoring the tower and keeper’s quarters began that same month.
The Friends group has applied for funds to address accessibility for people with disabilities and to research, construct and install professional museum exhibits in the restored keeper’s quarters that will document the important history of the lighthouse and the region. Additional funding will also provide reconstruction of the historic cistern, picket fence, brick walkways and relighting the lens inside the lantern room.
Donations are gratefully accepted to help us continue lighthouse restoration.
* John Roberts is the grandson of John Young Gresham, the longest serving and next-to-last keeper of the St. Marks Lighthouse.