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The Civil War History of St. Marks Lighthouse on the Gulf Coast

Thelma Raker Coffone is an award-winning writer who enjoys writing on a variety of topics, especially lighthouses.

Painting by William Trotter, reproduced in book "Florida Lighthouses" by Kevin McCarthy

Painting by William Trotter, reproduced in book "Florida Lighthouses" by Kevin McCarthy

Florida's Historic St Marks Lighthouse

Having survived over 100 hurricanes, St. Marks Lighthouse on Florida's Gulf coast plays an important role in ship navigation on Apalachee Bay, part of the Gulf of Mexico on the east side of the entrance to St. Marks River.

A national historic site, the lighthouse is located in the 68,000 acre St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. It is surrounded by fresh water and brackish (mixture of seawater and freshwater) ponds and wetlands which are homes to alligators and many species of birds including whooping cranes. Each October there is a massive influx of beautiful monarch butterflies on their long journey across the Gulf of Mexico.

Building of Florida's St. Marks Lighthouse

In the early 19th century, after several shipwrecks caused by the shallow waters at the entrance to the St. Marks River, Congress approved the construction of a lighthouse at a cost of $11,765. It was completed in 1830, however, officials refused to accept it and charged the builders with deliberate fraud against the United States government. The contract called for the walls to be solid but it was built with hollow walls, obviously an attempt by the builders to make more money on the project. It was rebuilt and completed in 1831. Due to erosion, it was rebuilt again in 1842.

The tower walls are four feet thick at the base and taper up to 18 inches at the top. It sits on a limestone base that is 12 feet thick. There are 85 steps up to the lantern room which houses a modern solar-powered light that can be seen for 15 miles. To give the tower strength during hurricanes, the keeper's house is attached to it, which is uncommon in southern lighthouses. The tower color design pattern for St. Marks lighthouse is solid white with a black lantern top.

Attached Keeper's Quarters are Uncommon in the South

Surrounded by palm trees and majestic oaks

Surrounded by palm trees and majestic oaks

St. Marks Civil War History

At the outbreak of the Civil War, the town of St. Marks, Florida was a small but very active seaport. Farmers from the central part of the Florida panhandle and south Georgia would bring their crops to Tallahassee and put them on the state's first railroad, owned by the Tallahassee Railroad Company. They would be transported down to St. Marks to be loaded on ships and sent to ports around the world. The Union forces recognized how important this was to Confederate commerce so plans were made to seize the capital city of Tallahassee and stop the shipments.

The Confederates believed the Union soldiers would come ashore at the lighthouse, so a small group of soldiers camped at the lighthouse to wait. A fleet of 16 Union ships arrived and began shelling the area with bullets. The Confederate soldiers were outnumbered and fled but not before they made an unsuccessful attempt to blow up the lighthouse to keep the Union troops from using it as a lookout post.

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A thousand Union soldiers marched toward Tallahassee from St. Marks, only to be stopped at Natural Bridge by the Confederates, including my great-great-grandfather. The Battle of Natural Bridge has been called the last significant Southern victory of the Civil War.

The Lighthouse Ghost

Many lighthouses are rumored to be haunted and St. Marks is no exception. The ghost of former lighthouse keeper Benjamin Metcalf is said to be on the job watching over St. Marks's light. Supposedly, his voice has been heard, footsteps have made noise in the night and strange lights have been seen. Why these occurrences have been attributed to Keeper Metcalf is unknown but it sure makes a nice story and adds a lot of mystery to a visit to St. Marks Lighthouse

A Visit to the Lighthouse

When my husband and I visited a few years ago, we were the only people at the lighthouse on a beautiful spring day except, of course, Keeper Metcalf! Prior to our trip, I found much useful information about the area and its history by reading Florida's Lighthouses in the Civil War.

Owned by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge is located just off US Highway 98 in St. Marks, Florida. There is a visitor's center at the entrance where you can obtain maps and visit the gift shop. Proceed about 7 miles on Lighthouse Road where it ends at the lighthouse. The grounds are open daily but the tower is only opened during special occasions such as Florida Lighthouse Day.

For outdoor enthusiasts, there are hiking and biking trails, a picnic area, several observation decks for photo opportunities, and a boat ramp next to the lighthouse if you want to bring your boat to fish or view the lighthouse from the water.

If you are planning a visit, the address for your GPS is 1255 Lighthouse Rd., St. Marks, FL 32355. Telephone: 850-925-6121

Learn About Lighthouses as a Family Project

Lighthouses are an interesting topic for adults but kids love them too! Take the opportunity to spend some quality time with your family while learning more about these beautiful landmarks and their importance in our American history.

Start by reading books together about lighthouses to learn how they work, why they are needed, and the colorful stories of the lighthouses and their keepers. An excellent source of information is Florida Lighthouses for Kids, written by a distinguished lighthouse historian. It has many pictures and is geared toward an adult and child reading it together. A 2nd-grade teacher recommended it to me.

Follow up with a family trip to see these majestic towers firsthand. There is even a program where you can enjoy your vacation while living and working in a real lighthouse. You and your children will become lighthouse enthusiasts before you know it!

© 2012 Thelma Raker Coffone

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