(December 23 & 26, 2016)
One of the benefits of working at an educational institution is that you get a generous break between semesters. And one of the benefits of living near Florida is that, more often than not, you can comfortably ride your motorcycle well into the Christmas season. And one of the benefits of knowing the Sandollars is that they like to ride, and have created tours for you even if you can’t always join the scheduled outings. And that perfect trifecta, my friends, are the fortuitous preconditions to my Sandollar Lighthouse Tour.
So off I went with a full day in mind and camera in my pocket to capture some landmarks and document my travels. Every trip starts with such enthusiasm that I want to take in everything. Like that tin soldier made up of painted 55 gallon drums, the classic looking southern downtown diner with its Royal Café neon sign amongst the palms, the elegant stately white Courthouse, or that ‘57 Ford hardtop setting in front of the old filling station. And that’s just 15 minutes out of my driveway! At this pace, if I succumb to the temptation, it’ll be nightfall before I see my first beacon.
With a little discipline, I continue down my favorite little back road to get to I-10, but drop below it into some of Florida’s wildlife management areas, or rather skirt their edges. That is, until you make that turn onto Lighthouse Rd to reach the required St Marks lighthouse, then you’re riding right into the St Marks National Wildlife Refuge. But before you do, top off your gas because it’s 10 miles in and 10 miles back without even an enterprising soul with a drum and a hand crank selling petro out of the back of his pickup. Oh, and don’t forget to pack a lunch, at 35mph you’re on that road for a while. But when you arrive at land’s end, you’re blessed with the sight of a pretty white lighthouse with its matching keeper’s house. However you’re best postcard is probably from the beach and they haven’t paved a path down there yet for street bikes, so I did the best I could to work with the tree branches.
Next, after my visit to the eastern most lighthouse on the Florida panhandle, was to just the other side of Carrabelle. The Crooked River lighthouse is named after the (get this) crooked river that runs more or less east-west between the Carrabelle and Ochlocknee Rivers, and with a small port established at the mouth of the Carrabelle, to capitalize on the trading of cotton and lumber it was determined that a navigational tool would be helpful. On the barrier island, Dog Island, a traditional Winslow Lewis tower had been constructed in the early 1800’s, however it was no match for the hurricanes over the years and the location was abandoned after 1873. In the new mainland location, the current less picturesque 103-foot iron tower was constructed.
Winslow Lewis. That’s a name seen time and time again when traipsing around lighthouses, and for good reason. In 1810, he patented his “reflecting and magnifying lantern” which became known as the Lewis Lens. It was such an advancement in technology that by the end of 1815, all U.S. lighthouses were converted to the Lewis Lens. After holding the contract to supply the oil for the lamps for a number of years, he turned his interest to building lighthouses. There’s an interesting story of how the government paid a highfalutin architect to design a lighthouse on the Mississippi, and Lewis said “I’ll built it, but it’ll never last. So, pay me up front.” Well they did, and it didn’t. Lewis came back to tell them that he could design one at a fraction of the cost and it’d stand a while. Well he did, and it did. After winning the confidence of the US government, Winston Lewis became the principle builder of light towers in the United States that numbered eighty in all.
Another one of Lewis’ beacons was placed at the entrance to the Apalachicola Bay. Like other locations along the panhandle, the houses have fallen victim to the powers of nature and have been rebuilt and/or moved around. Such was the fate of the Cape St George lighthouse which now sits at the end of the entry road onto St George Island, looking much more dignified than it had in the past few decades when it was leaning and eventually lying toppled on the sand. On the way to the island, I rediscovered the beauty of the bay. US98 runs right along the water. I don’t know how it is coming from the West, but heading West three or four times it drifts you inland, then bends to the left like it’s going to send you into that vast beautiful blue water. For a few moments, the water is framed by the trees along the road and it looks a picture of paradise. I’m here to tell you, if you regularly spend your days among the cotton fields and tall Georgia pines, this is quite a sight.
Before heading on to lighthouse #4, I’d be kicking myself if I didn’t indulge in the local cuisine. After a morning full of riding, I was ready to sit down to a plate full of an oyster po’ boy sandwich. And might I say, the local cuisine did not disappoint. Also, I would have liked to walk around and peek into some of those Apalachicola shops again, but there were still places to go and daylight’s burning. So, on to the “traveling lighthouse”. The St Joseph Point lighthouse was active for about 50 years in the early 20th century, and then it up and saw some of the country side functioning as, among other things, a hay barn. Unlike other lighthouses, it’s a 1-story building that was on stilts atop Beacon Hill. However now, it’s been restored and it’s a privately owned dwelling off from 30A. I didn’t know this when I started off that morning but got a sneaking suspicion as I drove down the driveway. Not to infringe much more than I already had, I kept the engine running, jumped off, and took my photo.
The last lighthouse of the day, I knew for sure was in a public welcoming area. I was headed for the Cape San Blas lighthouse which was no longer on Cape San Blas but recently re-located to a city park in Port St Joe. The shore of the Cape near the tower was washing away. The federal government was more than happy to sell the tower and its buildings to the city for their park roughly 12 miles away where it should be safe for quite a while. Port St Joe had it looking very spiffy and Christmas-y, donned with a large wreath. And that wrapped up my jaunt for the day. It was time to point the front tire home before the sun set and to get ready for the weekend festivities.
With 5 out of the 6 lighthouses in my camera, one set of Christmas visitor departed and one more set due to arrive later that day, I set off for the East Coast to get at least one more. Amelia Island was going to be the capstone, but the forecast was rain in the morning over there. For a little insurance and to kill some time, I figured I could go north of the swamp to visit St Simons Island, head south to Amelia, then travel below the swamp to get home in time. It seemed like a good plan. The weather was good in Valdosta and good in St Simons, but what I didn’t know was that in just about all that space in between laid thick fog. I made it alright, though. While keeping my right wrist in check, at a safe distance I made sure to place a car in front of me to run blocker through the pea soup.
The St Simons Island lighthouse is a picturesque white 104’ tower with a 2 story brick keeper’s house near a quaint shopping area. Like a lot of lighthouses, it’s not the original. But instead of a hurricane, its original happened to go out with a bang. Upon leaving the island in 1862, Confederate troops dynamited the tower and keeper’s cottage so they would be a benefit to Union forces. The current tower’s light first shown in 1872 and today you can walk in the keeper’s footsteps and climb the 129 steps to the top. Fortunately, I already have that “Been there, done that” T-shirt, so my legs didn’t feel they had anything to prove this time. Instead, I hopped back on the bike to Brunswick and back over the soaring Sidney Lanier Bridge on the way to I-95 South.
As it turns out, I should have hung out a little more in those quaint little shops. Just before I crossed the St Marys River and into Florida, the misty rain started. Fortunately I saw it coming and suited up, but riding in the rain’s still a drag. And once I reached Amelia Island, it became more than a misty rain. That meant it was a good time for lunch down by the beach where they served fresh shrimp, and had a tile floor that they didn’t mind me dripping all over. Like a charm, the rain was about over the same time as my meal. But not such perfect timing, the Monday after a Sunday Christmas is not the time to visit a lighthouse with an active Coast Guard facility on the grounds. Apparently, the federal holiday got pushed to Monday and the locked gate stopped me short of my best photo opportunity. (Interesting fact: this used to be a Georgia lighthouse. Winslow Lewis built it on Cumberland Island in 1820, but the shipping channel changed and the light couldn’t be seen. Cumberland Lighthouse was accordingly dismantled brick by brick, shipped across the river, and reconstructed atop the highest spot on Amelia Island in 1838 to which it is the oldest standing lighthouse in Florida.)
Wet and disappointed, I started back home. About a half hour inland the roads began to dry and I was able to shed my rain gear. All in all, not a bad tour. I got to visit 7 lighthouses: 5/6 on the panhandle, including the required St Marks, 1 other in Florida, and 1 in Georgia for insurance. But I still felt a bit insecure about my accomplishments. And then I saw it! An inland lighthouse that works kind of in reverse. Could this be inbounds? I’ve since checked with the line judge to which the response was, “A fire watch tower ain’t a lighthouse”. Well, I had to ask. You don’t know until you try…
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