ST. GEORGE ISLAND — In a strange sort of way, the years of storms that toppled 153-year-old Cape St. George Light ended up giving it new life in a place where many more can appreciate it.
Three years ago, the lighthouse sat on uninhabited Little St. George Island, accessible only by boat. Boarded up as a safety hazard, it was leaning slightly along the eroded shoreline until the 74-foot lighthouse finally succumbed to the gulf, smashing to pieces.
On Saturday, the lighthouse doors opened, and a line of people climbed the new set of pine steps circling inside the 19th century bricks before hoisting themselves up a metal ladder through a small rectangular hole to the lamp house.
"It's just absolutely thrilling," said Eddie Lueken, 52, of Tallahassee as she stood in the glass-enclosed lamp room, which was warmed by the sun. "This is a piece of history transplanted here."
Almost anyone who saw Cape St. George Light after it fell would have thought it was lost forever. Large chunks of bricks and the mangled metal lamp house were awash in the surf.
"It looked like such a heap of rubble that I thought it was overambitious to try" to restore it, said Mike Roehr, 67, who lives on St. George with his wife, Connie, 50.
Shortly after it fell, Dennis Barnell and Terry Kemp went out to take a look. What they saw was discouraging, but they decided if dinosaurs can be pieced back together, so could Cape St. George Light. They were already part of a group, the St. George Lighthouse Association, that was hoping to stabilize the structure and move it to higher ground.
Once the lighthouse crumbled, the mission changed.
The association worked through a bureaucratic maze of federal, state and county government to get the project approved and started. The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided money to recover and move the lighthouse pieces. Volunteers spent thousands of hours cleaning the old bricks.
The association raised money through T-shirt sales, fundraisers and other events and state lawmakers provided $350,000 to help. Contractors cut rates, volunteers provided labor.
And the lighthouse rose again at the end of the 4-mile bridge that connects St. George with Eastpoint on the other side of Apalachicola Bay, about 77 miles southwest of Tallahassee.
"It was a labor of love if there was ever one," said Lueken, who has a vacation house on St. George.
Residents and tourists from as far away as the Netherlands stood in line Saturday for about an hour to climb the 92 steps — not including the ladder through the 22-inch by 21-inch rectangle to the top. One boy shouted to his parents, "Whoa! This is awesome!" in a voice that echoed around the small room.
While maybe a little more subdued, adults making the climb were also enthralled.
"Neat! Awesome! Look at the bridge," said Connie Roehr, experiencing an entirely new view of the long, narrow island that she's known her whole life.
It wasn't her first time climbing steps in the lighthouse, but it was the first time she made it to the top.
When Roehr was a child, her parents would take her by boat to Little St. George where the abandoned lighthouse stood. It wasn't open to the public, but she would still venture inside.
"There wasn't anything that said that we couldn't," Roehr said with a laugh. "We didn't go very far."