Driving along The Forgotten Coast.
December 1 – December 12, 2019.
They call it “The Forgotten Coast.” It stretches along Florida’s panhandle from Mexico Beach to St. Marks on the Apalachee Bay. Noticeably absent are the high-rises, beach stores, and miniature golf courses that you see on other parts of the Florida coastline. Instead, there are small seaports with rich histories, towering lighthouses, small museums, and modest homes.
I get why they call it “forgotten” but “forgotten” makes me think, not worth remembering and the “forgotten coast” is not that. I think perhaps “the off the beaten track coast” would be better. Or maybe “the unexpectedly lovely coast.” It could be the “just as pretty as the rest of Florida but less crowded coast.” Or even better “the coast of sleepy towns with super nice friendly people.” I know none of these names are visitor-center-brochure catchy. But for me, they more accurately capture our experience of this un-“forgotten coast.”
Our first stop on the Forgotten Coast was at Carrabelle near the southeast corner of the Apalachicola National Forest. We might have given this small town a pass, but I saw that they had a bottle house. And if you know how much I live public art, you know I didn’t want to miss this. Looking at the map I saw there was also a small free museum in town. It’s free, why not visit? Surprisingly this tiny little museum ended up being one of the highlights of our Florida Panhandle journey.
When we arrived we were greeted by Tamara, a cheerful woman sitting on an electric scooter wearing a straw hat with a bright orange flower. She preceded to take us on a historical tour of this small museum starting with American Indian artifacts found in the area. She had just finished telling us about a mural currently in progress by a local artist of Caravelle in its heyday as a shipping port when her husband, Cal, arrived. He was there to take her up to the drug store to pick up a prescription.
Tamara shows us American Indian artifact that she collected from her yard.
A work in progress. This mural is being recreated from old photographs. A book of these photographs sits on a counter below the painting. If you look carefully you can find scenes in the painting that match the photos.
View of the inside of the Carrabelle History Museum.
Although Tamara’s replacement had shown up, she had one more thing she wanted to show us. She led us over to a chest full of pictures and newspaper clippings. Here she told us about a sunken ship, and the survivor who swam 25 miles to shore for help. Somehow after that, I ended up in another room with Tamara while Greg remained with her husband and the volunteer replacement. When Tamara and I rejoined, Cal asked if we wanted to go next door for a quick visit to his painting studio. Sure!
At the studio, Cal explained his technique using egg tempera and natural pigments which he sourced himself. His paintings reminded me of Andrew Wyeth. And as it turns out, Wyeth was an inspiration to him. We looked at quite a few individual paintings in Cal’s gallery, and he told us stories about each.
Cal shows us how he makes paints with natural ingredients.
Cal uses copper wire to make Cobalt Blue.
Finally, we returned to the museum, passing by Cal’s car, door open, ramp out. Ready for the last hour to scoop up Tamara and take her to the pharmacy.
It was getting late by then, but I still wanted to see the Bottle house! It was just a short walk away. Located in a yard on private property there is a gate and a sign inviting visitors to come on in 7 days a week, 24 hours a day – just don’t let the dogs out. Soon after we entered, we were greeted by 2 rambunctious standard poodles. A little while later Frances, the wife of the bottle house creator, sat and talked with us for a while.
The house was built 2012 and the lighthouse in 2013 by Leon Wiesener, and artist and former Professor of Art at the University of Tennessee. He and his wife retired and moved to Carrabelle in 2000. Two years later he woke up inspired to create the bottle house.
View inside the bottle house.
Many of the 6000 glass bottles used in the structure were donated by friends and acquaintance living or visiting Carabelle. Others came from trips to various recycling centers.
The Forgotten Coast is home to 4 historic lighthouses. Three of these were on our path from Carrabelle westward.
The Crooked River Lighthouse was closed when we stopped by so we didn’t get to go inside. This 103 ton iron and steel lighthouse still stands where it was built 125 years ago in 1895. An acrylic reproduction of the structure’s original 4th order Fresnel lens beams nightly. The lighthouse was decommissioned by the Coast Guard in 1995.
The Cape St. George Light standing at the center of St. George Island is the fourth reconstruction of the historic lighthouse that was originally built on what is now called Little St. George Island. The first lighthouse was built in 1833. Damaged by storms, it was dismantled, moved and reconstructed. This second lighthouse fell during a hurricane in 1851 but was reerected in 1852 a little farther from the water’s edge. It stood in its new location for 153 years before erosion caused it to collapse in 2005.
Volunteers salvaged more than 22,000 original bricks from the rubble, cleaning the mortar off each one by hand, and with public and private funding the lighthouse was rebuilt. It opened anew on St. George’s Island where it stands today. Here is a view from the top over the island.
Wooden staircase inside Cape St. George lighthouse. Most of the lighthouses we’ve been in have metal staircases.
Replica of the Fresnel lens at Cape St. George. The original lens was lost. Very few craftsmen have the US Coast Guard skills to recreate these lenses.
The Cape San Blas Lighthouse was built more than 130 years ago. It has survived many storms and blows over the years but in 2012 Tropical Storm Isaac washed away much of the shoreline and caused the lighthouse to close temporarily. The lighthouse was moved in 2014 to its current location.
View from the top of Cape San Blas Lighthouse.
Our next stop on the Forgotten Coast was the city of Apalachicola. I had read about the maritime museum here, and it sounded very interesting. Unfortunately, much of the town was still recovering from the previous year’s Hurricane, Michael, including the maritime museum. It was closed. We did have a nice stroll around the town and a visit to another museum about someone I had never heard of before – John Gorrie, a pioneering inventor of the ice machine and air-conditioning.
John Gorrie is credited with inventing mechanical refrigeration. Born in Nevis, and raised in South Carolina, he became a physician, getting his training in New York. When he moved to the new port city of Apalachicola to practice, he became obsessed with finding a cure for malaria. At the time it was believed that hot swamp air (not mosquitos) carried the disease.
John married. His wife had a large hotel, which became John’s malaria sick ward. He experimented with the process of cooling rooms by hanging ice from the ceilings. Windows were closed, and floor vents added. (The ice would not have been hung over the patient, though, as this diorama shows.) The rooms did get cooler. Initially, his ice was shipped from New England. It was very difficult to keep ice through the hot summer months, so he decided to try to make his own ice.
He experimented, running into many roadblocks. But he finally came up with a machine that would actually freeze water during the summer in Apalachicola.
Decorated for Christmas.
Gulf Coast National Seashore – Fort Pickens
Fort Pickens is not on the Forgotten Coast but it was our last stop in Florida. The National Park includes white sandy beaches, nature trails, a discovery center, and, of course, a fort.
The Fort Pickens Discovery Center.
The Gulf Coast of Florida is known for its white-sand beaches. At the Discovery Center, we learned that this sand was once granite in the Appalachian Mountains. Over many thousands of years, the granite blocks eroded falling into rivers heading to the ocean and broke down to its mineral components. Only the quartz from the granite survived the long trip to the sea intact, giving the beaches of the Florida Panhandle its white glow.
Despite the chilly weather, there were many surfers on the water during our visit.
Part of The Florida National Scenic Trail runs through Fort Pickens. This was our second time on the trail in Florida. Ironically, the trail runs right past where we had our van worked on in Blountstown. This part of the trial is much prettier.
Grey Heron on the trail.
Built by slave labor in 1819, Fort Pickens was one of three fortifications guarding Pensacola Bay. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Union forces (50 men) abandoned the other forts and the Naval shipyard, holding Ft. Pickens until reinforcements arrived months later.
The Union pinned down the harbor entrance for the war’s duration. There were several incursions between forces across the bay, though, with Confederates attacking encamped Union soldiers a short distance from the fort (in the same campground where we stayed). At one point during the war, the three forts lit the skies, firing on each other ineffectually for a full day. (The forts were built in positions to protect the harbor, not fire at each other.)
The cannon crews had to struggle with smoke and deafening noise. Here are the tools a crew would use to arm, clean, and move its gun.
Commanding view of the harbor entrance atop Ft. Pickens. The bayside of the fort was built at the water’s edge. In the 200 years since, the island has moved under the fort toward the center of the harbor.
Between each of the arches was a cannon station. Cannons built later had longer barrels, so notches were cut into the brick to allow them more swing room.
Here the underside of an arch is exposed. The fort was built on sand. The underground brick arches provided additional support. The fort would probably look the same as when it was built, except for modifications made later by the military. (There is one exception. These forts had self-destruct plans. In case they were overrun by the enemy, a room full of gunpowder would be ignited. An accidental fire caused a self-destruct powder room to explode here at Fort Pickens. The explosion sent a corner of the fort into the bay.)
The bayside of the fort may have been on the water, but the back of the fort had this dry “moat”. It was essentially a killing field for attackers who got too close.
After learning that rifled barrels improved accuracy, the military put rifled inserts into old cannons like this. The barrel fragment on the right is not rifled. The fragment on left has rifled grooves that twist the shot, causing it to spin like a well-thrown football pass.
Civil War medical kit. If you ended up with unwanted lead in you, you’d see these tools in action. You’d wait in line as the blood-covered doctor (who had one or two years of training), put patients under, using chloroform. He’d put on a tourniquet, cut flesh away, then quickly saw through bone. Who’s next? (Doctors and nurses save many lives, but you just don’t see Civil War monuments commemorating them.)
Duwan is in position to protect the coastline!
Do you have a favorite coast? Have you visited any interesting small museums lately?