ST. GEORGE ISLAND
Bruce Robie was in the Florida Panhandle on business four years ago when he made a side trip to visit Cape St. George Light, knowing he might not get a chance to see it again.
The Washington state resident hired a fishing guide to take him to uninhabited Little St. George Island, jumping out of the boat with his camera bag held high. He waded ashore to photograph the 153-year-old lighthouse, which was tilted and standing perilously in the surf after years of storms had eroded the shoreline.
"It was kind of surreal being there knowing that this historic structure was going to topple. It was quiet and peaceful, but you could tell the island had been ravaged," said Robie, vice president of the Washington Lightkeepers Association. A year after the trip, he saw photos of the lighthouse lying in pieces as waves washed over it.
This spring he was back in Florida, and again made a side trip to see the lighthouse. This time, though, he didn't have to hire a boat. It was standing straight up on neighboring St. George Island, in no danger from the Gulf of Mexico after being saved by residents who couldn't bear to see a cherished part of their history lost to the sea.
Robie has visited about 230 North American lighthouses, and while there are many ongoing efforts to preserve and protect them, he has never seen an effort quite like the one on this long, narrow island southwest of Tallahassee.
"They've just recaptured it from total destruction and put it back together. It didn't even cross my mind that they would try," Robie said. "That's probably the most amazing thing I've seen as far as bringing one back to life."
The 74-foot-tall brick lighthouse fell over in October 2005, smashing to pieces in the Gulf of Mexico. Members of the St. George Lighthouse Association, which had been trying to move the lighthouse back from the coast, decided to save it.
"We tried to look at the bright side of it, and said, 'Well, if you can dig a dinosaur up out of the ground and put the bones back together in a museum, we can dig this lighthouse up and put the pieces back together,' " said Dennis Barnell, the association's president. "It's somewhat of a miracle."
Even people who dedicate their lives to lighthouses had doubts. "I am very, very happy and surprised that they got it built," said Chad Kaiser, education director for the United States Lighthouse Society based at the Point No Point Light Station in Washington's Puget Sound. "To finally see it down, it was a realization that nature often wins."
Permits to dig up Cape St. George Light rubble were difficult to get, and while locals were raising money through T-shirt sales, raffles, parties, auctions and other efforts, it was clear the community would need more help to rebuild the lighthouse.
But the determination never slowed. "You can't have doubts, you just have to have a positive outlook. There were a lot of people who thought we were way too optimistic, that it wasn't going to happen," said Joe Bacher, who helped raise money out of the hot sauce and seasoning shop he runs with his wife, Charolette.
Federal Emergency Management Agency funding for post-storm beach cleanup helped get the lighthouse remains off Little St. George. A salvage company dug up the bricks and they were brought to Eastpoint on the mainland. For 18 months, volunteers cleaned the bricks for reuse.
Then the group received a $50,000 preservation grant, and later the state Legislature approved $350,000 for the project. That, combined with about $160,000 raised privately and the goodwill of contractors who cut their prices, helped bring the lighthouse back in a new, safer location at the heart of the island that's a Forgotten Coast tourist destination.
While not all 160,000 bricks came from the original lighthouse, the ones the public will see did. The 24,000 bricks salvaged from the original structure line the inside of the conical tower. The outside bricks are now covered in stucco and white paint. The lamp house atop the lighthouse was pulled from the water mangled, and brought to an Alabama company for restoration, and granite around the windows and doors are from the original structure.
While there's still some work to do — the stairwell to the lamp house is under construction, the park around the light needs landscaping and the association is looking for a lens to eventually light it — Cape St. George Light is now a striking figure as visitors cross the 4-mile bridge to St. George.
Bacher, gazing out at the lighthouse from his store, added: "There aren't many things in your life that make you feel as good as that over there."