This is Chasing Shadows

When Apalachicola was founded in 1831, St. George Island was a single, 29-mile stretch of land. Colin Mitchel, his brother Peter, and John Carnochan claimed title to the barrier islands from St. Vincent to Dog Island as part of the land they purchased from John Forbes and Company in 1819, but their claim was being appealed to the US Supreme Court.

The history of island ownership was simplified when the hurricane of 1837 separated Cape St. George from the rest of St. George Island by gouging out New Inlet. (Figure 1) Although the gap filled in sometime after 1912, the separation became permanent when Sikes Cut was dredged in 1957 two miles east of the 1837 channel. Up to that time, maps identified the smaller island as Cape St. George, but after the shipping channel was dredged in 1957, the name was officially changed to Little St. George Island.

The lighthouse’s origins

The barrier islands had no permanent residents until 1833 when the U.S. built a lighthouse at the west end of St. George Island. Louis McLane, then Treasury secretary, purchased 10 acres of land from Peter Mitchel and an associate for $52. The deed did not identify a parcel of land; it merely stipulated the lighthouse would be located within 15 miles of Apalachicola.

By no coincidence, both McLane and Territorial Representative Joseph White were named trustees of the Apalachicola Land Company when the Mitchels organized it in 1835. As payment for their service, each man was promised $4,492. However, Colin Mitchel died before the promissory note could be fulfilled, and the trustees later sued the company for back pay.

Seven men, beginning with John W. Smith and his son Allen, served as lighthouse keepers at West Pass. Qualifications at the time were based on patronage rather than merit. The men applied to Gabriel Floyd, the customs collector and superintendent when the lighthouse began operations. Only two men, Willis Nichols (1835-41) and David Adkins (1842-46), stayed on the isolated island for more than a year. In the 1840 census, Nichols was single, not yet 30, whereas Adkins was married with seven children.

Nichols was keeper when the hurricane of 1837 struck. Somehow, the lighthouse and dwelling survived the storm, which opened New Inlet and separated Cape St. George from the rest of the island. The storm also stranded the lighthouse at the end of Sand Island, and Sand Island Pass remained open up to the Civil War.

In 1847, an appropriation of $8,000 was received from Congress to move the lighthouse to Cape St. George. About six acres of land was purchased from the Apalachicola Land Company by the new customs collector, Samuel W. Spencer, and Edward Bowen, a contractor from Franklin County, was hired to move and rebuild the lighthouse.

The first Cape St. George lighthouse, lit by keeper Francis Lee in Dec. 1848, operated just two-and-one-half years. In August 1851, the Great Middle Florida Hurricane destroyed all three lighthouses in the district. With the port of Apalachicola thriving, Congress quickly appropriated funds to rebuild all three structures. William Austin, a coastal pilot from Apalachicola, was keeper from 1850-54. He endured the destructive storm and stayed on to light the new tower.

A new contract for $6,390 was issued to Charles Emerson and Edwin Adams of Boston in Dec. 1851, and port collector Benjamin Hawley oversaw construction. The new lighthouse was built on a higher point 400 yards from the tideline on a strong foundation of pilings. Completed in summer of 1852, the tower lasted for 153 years and became the iconic, guiding beacon over Apalachicola Bay. When Hurricane Wilma finally undercut it in 2005, the St. George Lighthouse Association rebuilt the tower and keeper’s cottage at the end of the bridge on the main island.

From 1833 to 1949, 22 men served as light keepers, and another 20 were assistant keepers. The longest-serving in Apalachicola Bay were four generations of keepers descended from Braddock Williams, who began at Cape St. George in 1854 and was present when the Fresnel lens was installed in 1857. Members of his family served at Cape St. George, as bay light keepers in Eastpoint, and at Crooked River lighthouse. (Figure 2) By the time James Tabor Williams retired in 1939, four generations had served over a span of 85 years.

The Orman family

In 1861, just as the US Navy began blockading Apalachicola in the Civil War, cotton merchant Thomas Orman purchased most of Little St. George for $405 from the bankrupt Apalachicola Land Company. His land did not include the lighthouse reservation’s six acres. There is no record the Lighthouse Establishment ever paid Orman for rights-of-way to the sand road and dock it built on the bay where keepers kept the launch used to sail to Apalachicola for mail and supplies.

After the Civil War, soldiers from the 82nd U.S. Colored Infantry occupied Apalachicola until Sept. 1866. During that year, the military seized a variety of land, including Little St. George Island. However, the island remained in the Orman family after the 82nd Infantry departed. After Thomas’ son William died in 1888, Edward Porter purchased 1,515 acres of Little St. George Island from surviving Orman family members.

The Porter family

It is not clear how lighthouse keeper Edward Porter obtained the purchase price for Little St. George Island, but entrepreneurship ran in his family. His uncle, William G. Porter, had arrived in Apalachicola in 1841 to found a cotton exporting company. He was quite successful, and soon invited his brother, Richard Gibbs Porter, to join the firm, which expanded into land sales and acted as banking and collections agents.

From 1886 until 1894, Edward served as assistant keeper at the Cape San Blas Lighthouse about 20 miles west of Cape St. George. In 1894, the Lighthouse Board promoted him to head keeper at Cape St. George, where his family would leave its mark for the next 80 years.

Edward and wife, Josephine, had five children; Barnard, their oldest boy, born when Edward was stationed at Cape San Blas, the rest while living at Cape St. George. Pearl was born there in 1900 and later recorded a memoir of her life on the island.

Edward Porter may have been the first man to make a living as an island owner in Franklin County. His job as head keeper paid $800 a year and provided a family residence. Soon after buying Little St. George, he built a cottage and dock near the bay. The cottage was the first rental property on any part of St. George, and it was a popular vacation spot for county residents.

Porter brought a herd of cattle to the island, where most were raised for beef he sold at a local market. Like other keepers, he had milk cows to help provide for his family of five children.

Hurricanes were frequent during Edward Porter’s tenure at the lighthouse, and he convinced the Lighthouse Bureau to provide building materials for a storm house. He built the shelter in a hammock between two ridges at the west end of Little St. George. His daughter Pearl remembered heading back from the hammock house in a wagon, only to meet her father midway. “Go back,” he told his wife, “This is only the eye of the hurricane.”

Keepers were required to keep the lighthouse lit through storms and hurricanes, and Edward Porter witnessed the worst catastrophe in Island history when the hurricane of 1894 trapped 16 mullet fishermen on Sand Island. According to historian Marlene Womack, the men and boys had sailed from St. Andrews Bay in hopes of catching an enormous mullet run under the full moon of October. When the water surged over Sand Island, they had no way of escaping and all perished. Only four bodies were recovered.

In 1911, Porter leased the timber on the island to John Bragdon for turpentine production. He also wrote to the lighthouse superintendent, and pointed out that he was chopping his own trees for firewood. The superintendent agreed to reimburse him for the firewood. Unlike other island owners, Porter never had a problem paying his property taxes!

Porter died of kidney disease in 1913. About that time, New Inlet began to fill in. In 1913, the Apalachicola Times reported that turpentine operator J.T. Bragdon killed a very large alligator near the Inlet.

However, after Pearl Porter married Herbert Marshall in 1923 (Figure 3), she reported the couple were able to ride horses to East Pass and drive cattle to tick-dipping vats. So St. George Island was once again intact from about 1923 to 1957 when Bob Sikes Cut was finished, permanently separating the two islands again.

Herbert and Pearl Marshall

Among the citizens who rented Porter’s guest house was the family of George Marshall, a well-known Apalachicola home builder. Pearl said she met George’s son Herbert when she took a wagon to the dock to transport the family to the cottage. They became sweethearts and married in 1923 after Herbert served in the US Navy.

After Edward Porter died in 1913, his wife Josephine inherited the family land on Little St. George. In 1924, she sold oyster promoter William Popham rights to harvest oysters and fish on bottoms adjacent to the Little Saint George and Sand Island. Although the Porter family moved to Apalachicola, they often returned to Little St. George during the summer.

When Mrs. Porter died later in 1924, the island was divided among her children, but it was sold through an executor in 1929 to a company called Southwestern States Incorporated for $17,500. However, Herbert and Pearl Marshall repurchased Little St. George by paying taxes owed on the property. Although they moved to the mainland when Herbert started a job with the state road department, they leased turpentine rights to Mr. C.C. Land, and the two men also raised beef cattle together.

World War II

In 1939, the Lighthouse Bureau was transferred to the Coast Guard. Lighthouse keepers Sullivan White and John Montgomery stayed on by enlisting, and continued living in the keeper’s quarters. The Coast Guard built barracks for coast watchers to look out for German submarines, and civilians were asked to leave all the barrier islands. Herbert Marshall joined the U.S. Army, and he and Pearl stayed in Apalachicola during the war.

When the conflict was over, Herbert received permission to use material from Army barracks at the airfield to build a home on Little St. George. He also got permission from the Coast Guard to use the heart pine flooring from the keeper’s quarters at the lighthouse, which was automated in 1949. With these materials, he built the Marshall House, which still stands on Little St. George Island. Marshall was elected sheriff of Franklin County and served for 16 years, so he and Pearl did not live on the island permanently.

Sadly, Herbert was killed while trying to push his motorboat off the island into a strong wind. He had jumped overboard while another man steered, and apparently was hit by the propeller while caught on the muddy bottom.

Little St. George Island Reserve

At about the time Marshall died, the state set up a program for purchasing conservation easements in critical habitat, and Pearl agreed to sell most of their land to the state. Cape St. George Island was purchased in 1977 under the Environmentally Endangered Lands program to contribute to the protection of Apalachicola Bay. The island is owned by the state and managed by the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve (ANERR) as a refuge for sea turtles and endangered shorebirds.

Thanks to ANERR and the Department of Environmental Protection, Little St. George Island became a wildlife sanctuary just after the bridge was built to St. George Island in 1965 and development on the main island began.