A vacation never really seems like a vacation to me unless it involves the ocean and a cocoon of soft, inviting beach. Perhaps it is growing up in a land-locked state that stimulates this desire to flee to the coast and water (yes, I know the Bluegrass has the greatest length of navigable waterways and streams in the continuous United States – but that’s just not the same). Beyond the delights of sun and surf, there exists a myriad of coastal resources we just don’t have in the Commonwealth – particularly lighthouses.
Given the dearth of lighthouses in Kentucky, I am by no means an expert on their history and design – but I do know that the automation of lighthouses by the Coast Guard was the death knell of these resources. Fortunately, lighthouses fascinate a great many people, and the United States Lighthouse Society is a treasure trove of information for anyone seeking to expand their knowledge about these beacons of navigation.
I’ve clambered up relatively few lighthouses – in Washington state and along the Outer Banks – so I was excited to add to my list the lighthouses of Florida’s “forgotten coast.” The first Cape St. George Lighthouse was built in 1833; a second in 1848; and the third in 1852. The last version remained in active service (albeit automated after 1949) until 1994. What intrigued me the most though was the herculean effort to reconstruct the 1852 brick lighthouse after its collapse in 2005.
Nature finally had her way with the lighthouse, but the St. George Lighthouse Association, together with Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, rallied to salvage the original materials from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Thousands of bricks were recovered, and volunteers set to scouring the mortar from them so they could be used again as building materials. With the help of the original plans from the National Archives, the lighthouse was reconstructed in the center of St. George Island, along with a reconstruction of the original Keeper’s House.
Preservation never really works unless it is accepted and valued by a community. Obviously, lighthouses attract tourists, and tourist dollars help local economies. But for communities living precariously on the coast – a lighthouse is a symbol and a very real sense of place. The work that went into reconstructing the lighthouse (and the 1998 documentation work by the Historic American Buildings Survey came none too soon) is beyond impressive – because despite the lack of context (the lighthouse is no longer on its original site, and many of the materials are new), it stands as a testament to the belief of people in a historic structure. And quite frankly, we need more of those people from coast to coast.