Since 1896, the Crooked River Lighthouse has stood watch in Carrabelle, Florida, on a stretch of the Gulf some call the Forgotten Coast.
From this spot it has withstood storms, decommissioning and threat of demise.
With the support of a determined community, this beacon has not been forgotten and recently regained a light it lost long ago.
When lit in October of 1895, the lighthouse—sometimes referred to as Carrabelle Lighthouse—replaced earlier structures that stood on nearby Dog Island and were repeatedly destroyed by storms.
From this station on the mainland, where she still stands, the structure guided mariners on the Crooked River and the Gulf of Mexico. It was vital in assisting timber ships, fishermen and oystermen through the treacherous pass between Dog Island and St. George Island at the mouth of the Crooked River.
Its light source was visible in a 15-nautical-mile radius.
“The Crooked River lens was what is known as a bivalve,” says Steve Allen, president of the Carrabelle Lighthouse Association. “It’s a rare type of lens, a fourth-order Fresnel lens. It’s a bivalve, kerosene-powered lens made in 1894 in France.”
The technology of the day allowed the beehive-shaped lens to be flashed by rotating the lens assembly in a tray filled with 250 pounds of liquid mercury while the light source itself remained stationary.
A clock-type mechanism—which had to be wound by hand every few hours before automation—made the revolving lens rotate around the lamp itself to produce the flash. The movement of the lens is timed precisely so the panel will pass by when a flash is due.
The lighthouse was converted to electric power in 1933 and unmanned 20 years later. The original Fresnel lens was removed in 1976.
“In 1976, most lenses were taken out of lighthouses because they had mercury in them,” Steve explains.
“You hear stories about lighthouse keepers going mad,” he says, noting many assume the solitary existence was to blame. “It is said the keepers went mad from inhaling mercury fumes from the lenses. It was the fumes, not the isolation.”
The light was replaced by a modern optic. The lighthouse remained in operation until it was decommissioned in 1995 and subsequently listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Four years after its decommissioning, the Coast Guard planned to surplus the structure and sell it at auction. The proposal prompted the birth of the Carrabelle Lighthouse Association—a dedicated group of local citizens intent on preserving, restoring and opening the lighthouse to the public.
In 2001, the Carrabelle Lighthouse Association and the city of Carrabelle took possession of the lighthouse station and subsequently obtained funding to restore it and open the grounds to the public.
Today, the refurbished lighthouse sits amid a 5-acre city park alongside Keeper’s House Museum, which opened in 2007. The 102-foot tower still displays its unique red-and-white markings. It is white on the bottom to stand out from the trees, red above to be more visible from a distance and has a black lantern room, which houses the light.
The museum is a replica of the keeper’s house. Inside are vignettes offering glimpses into the life of a keeper. A rolltop desk and logbook sit beside a uniform coat. Maritime instruments are on display, as is a replica of the wooden box “lending library” that traveled by ship from station to station, delivering books to the solitary lighthouse keepers.
In a quest to preserve the lighthouse and these pieces of maritime history, volunteers learned all they could about the lighthouse’s history. Those efforts helped Carrabelle Lighthouse Association members solve a mystery and return a huge piece of history to its home.
After much research, volunteers learned the original fourth-order Fresnel light removed from the tower was taken to the New Orleans headquarters of the U.S. Coast Guard’s 8th District Fleet. In 2011, the lens was on display in the district office when the Carrabelle group asked that the lens be returned.
The request was denied, but members of the Carrabelle Lighthouse Association did not give up. After more requests, visits and numerous phone calls, the Coast Guard finally relinquished possession and the arduous process of moving the rare, 500-pound lens began.
According the U.S. Lighthouse Society, Fresnel lenses represent a unique aspect of U.S. Coast Guard history.
“These artifacts are highly sought by a wide variety of museums and associations,” the U.S. Lighthouse Society says. “Due to their historic significance, fragility, high value, and the U.S. Coast Guard’s policy to protect and preserve these artifacts, an additional set of conditions is placed upon prospective borrowing organizations.”
Steve says the association had to hire a lampist—a rare tradesman qualified to repair, restore, and disassemble or reassemble the intricate lighthouse lenses.
In February 2020, Kurt Fosburg oversaw the move of the original lens back to the Crooked River Lighthouse station. He continues to advise the Carrabelle Lighthouse Association on the proper display and maintenance of the lens.
The beautifully crafted piece of history sits approximately 30 inches high. Soon, a display with interpretive materials will support the lens as it takes its place as the top attraction in the museum.
Thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers, the Forgotten Coast has not forgotten its maritime history. An important piece of that history is now home.