Carrabelle Celebrates Its Guiding Light
By: Florence Beth Snyder
Lighthouses have always had a powerful hold on the imagination. The Lighthouse at Alexandria lives in the collective memory among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The fictional Janus Rock lighthouse "speaks" to millions of 21st century fans of the book and movie "The Light Between Oceans."
The Crooked River Lighthouse is equally good at igniting imaginations, and has the advantage of being a real place, beckoning travelers to a picturesque, postage stamp-sized slice of Northwest Florida's Forgotten Coast just west of this fishing village at the mouth of the Carrabelle River. Joan Matey, keeper- in-chief of the Crooked River Lighthouse legacy, has forgotten nothing about the lighthouse and its romantic — and sometimes traumatic — history. Matey and a small group of deeply committed volunteers love to share the story with visitors from around the world.
"There is so much heroism to something that guides a ship through peril," said Matey. "Throughout time and history, lighthouses all over the world are inanimate heroes, giving recognition to the difficulties of being out at sea."
The tale begins in 1838 when the first of three Crooked River Lighthouse predecessors was raised on Dog Island to guide mariners into Apalachicola Bay. Hurricanes came and went, sweeping the lighthouse away with them each time. By the end of the 19th century, the lighthouse was relocated to higher and more sheltered ground on the Franklin County mainland.
The architects who reimagined the lighthouse for its new place and the new century created a structure that doesn't look much like the solid conical shape we're used to seeing. Instead, they employed an exposed beam "skeleton tower" design, which was gaining popularity in hurricane-prone parts of the world. Builders broke ground in January 1895, and the light atop the 103-foot iron tower went into service just before Halloween of that year.
James Williams, the first head keeper, was 67 years old when he came to Crooked River with two decades experience at the nearby Cape St. George Lighthouse. Williams' father and older brother were also lighthouse keepers. In time, three of Williams' sons would follow to tend the lantern at the top of Crooked River's 138 steps.
On either side of the lighthouse were two identical cottages for a head keeper, an assistant keeper and their families. Housing was a fringe benefit that came with an endless list of chores for wives and children.
The Crooked River Lighthouse Museum, located in a replica of the 1895 cottage design, provides visitors a close-up look at everyday tools of the lighthouse trade, along with the trinkets, treats and small luxuries that broke up the monotony.
There are museum exhibits devoted to the "magical light machines" sailors counted upon to guide them to safe harbor. The multi-prism glass lenses first made by Augustin Fresnel in France in the 1820s were a great leap forward in lighthouse technology. Before his invention, lighthouse keepers tended multiple oil lamps. It was messy, expensive and the light wasn't very bright.
Fresnel solved all of those problems. His clever design used the prisms of the lens to magnify and redirect a single lamp into horizontal beams of light that reached far out over the water. An added bonus is that the diamond-like lens is just plain pretty to look at.
Think of Fresnel as a diamond-cutter and the Paris-based firm Henry-Lepaute as his Tiffany & Co., designing perfect settings for Fresnel's jewels. The Fresnel/Henry-Lepaute pairing produced many lenses for American lighthouses in the 19th century, including the lens manufactured in Paris in 1894 for the Crooked River Lighthouse. That lens is currently housed at the U.S. Coast Guard Eighth District Offices in New Orleans. Crooked River Lighthouse friends hope to bring it home one day.
Electricity came to the lighthouse in 1933, followed by automation in 1952. Advances in radar, weather forecasting, and other safety-related maritime technologies rendered the lighthouse increasingly irrelevant, and in August 1995 — just two months short of its 100th birthday — the Crooked River Lighthouse was decommissioned. As the Coast Guard made plans sell the tower for scrap, city officials and community activists joined forces to keep the magic light on.
With financial support from the state and from the Franklin County Tourist Development Council, the Crooked River Lighthouse Association took over the lighthouse and created a public park on two surrounding acres. At dusk on Dec. 8, 2007, a replica of the original Fresnel light was lit, and has shone over Carrabelle every night since. Another milestone was marked in 2012, when the original lighthouse wash house, which had been sold by the Coast Guard years before, was restored to the property.
Folks on the Forgotten Coast love their lighthouse and are always looking for new ways of friend-raising and fundraising. Fifteen-dollar annual memberships are popular. Perks include all the stair-climbing members can stand. Area residents volunteer to pull weeds on the park grounds, the better to enjoy Lighthouse events such as Lantern Fest. The annual October birthday party for the lighthouse features original theater, dance, music, arts and crafts. Folks bring their holiday gift list to the museum store, which caters to shoppers looking for interesting presents for landlubbers as well as sailors.
A day trip to visit the lighthouse isn’t complete without a ramble around the fishing village of Carrabelle. The town’s restaurants deliver big on fresh, flavorful seafood, as well as homestyle comfort food, without the big-city prices. The menu at The Fisherman's Wife changes according to whatever swims in from the Gulf of Mexico, or, as The Wife likes to call it, "our backyard." On Thursday, Friday and Saturday, The Wife adds crab cakes to the menu, and you'll want to get there early, before the locals finish them off.
Ron Gempel is the proprietor of Carrabelle Junction and a tourist attraction himself. The septuagenarian shopkeeper and restaurateur brings a San Francisco sensibility to his funky diner. The vibe is mid-20th century malt shop with a dash of sprouts and avocados for the hearty sandwiches Ron personally prepares. The Junction mixes up old-fashioned soda floats, egg creams and milkshakes that are well worth the calories.
For those who prefer 21st century beverages, there's also state-of-the-art cappuccino and latte. Drop some coins in the jukebox and do the jitterbug on the checkerboard floor. Find a perfect present for grandma among the vast collection of authentic pop culture tchotchkes and collectibles from a time before credit cards, which are not accepted at this cash-only establishment.
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Photos by Colin Hackley for VISIT FLORIDA