Cape St. George Island Lighthouse and the Jews
By Jerry Klinger
Touristing – better known as cultural tours, especially historical tours to see the sites of events and add meaning to the American experience, preferably without vindictive teenagers – is great. One fun thing about Florida is visiting historic lighthouses. There are big, small, white, red, and striped like candy canes. There are short ones, 7 feet, and big ones, 191 feet – that’s a lot of stair climbing. Some are in the middle of dangerous nautical areas that only wildlife and wayward seafarers ever reach, like Alligator Reef Light in the Keys. Others are on land, next to beautiful beaches and very accessible. Quite a few have become museums.
Alligator Reef Light is not easy to get to. It sits on a dangerous offshore coral reef. From the name one might guess that the main visitors are alligators, of which there are plenty behind every house in every artificial lake in Florida.
Alligator Reef was named for the USS Alligator, a Key West anti-piracy schooner that ran aground on the reef in 1822. They took everything from her and blew up the ship so the pirates couldn’t retake it. On the other side of the same coin, Hen and Chicken’s Shoal light is amazing. Did a group of chickens impound a boat that Colonel Sanders escaped when the bearded man showed up at their chicken coop, only they got stuck in a swarm? What was her fate…don’t ask. Kentucky Fried Chicken does not reply to emails.
Of Florida’s 49 lighthouses, 25 are still on active duty, lighting their nighttime warning beacons to ward off errant ships. The first lighthouse dates back to the Spanish days in St. Augustine in the 1720’s. It’s long gone.
Cape St George Lighthouse
The lighthouse tour is a fun beach adventure. Some lighthouses are museums and can be climbed – from the inside. Outdoor scaling is not recommended. Some have bricks/pavers that you can purchase to help with the lighthouse’s preservation efforts. Cape St. George Lighthouse in the Panhandle area of Florida just outside of Apalachicola Bay is one.
St. George Light dates from 1833. St. George Light and the nearby Dog Island Light, 1839, were important navigational aids. Threading the needle to enter Apalachicola Bay was extremely dangerous.
In the 1830s, Apalachicola was a major cotton port and the third largest on the Gulf of Mexico. Today, a large portion of Florida’s oysters come from the Bay.
The lighthouses didn’t last long. The 1850 hurricane, a really big one, destroyed both St. George and Dog Island Lights.
St. George Light was rebuilt in 1851-52. It crashed in the Gulf in 2005 after 153 years of service.
A group of local historical activists did the impossible and had the St. George Light rebuilt and reopened in 2008. A museum is attached. The museum sells face stones with the donor’s name on them. The stones are placed in the sidewalks.
I bought a brick. A week ago I received an email about the brick. Exciting.
“Your cobblestone has now been installed in patch 42. This is the 6th patch on the south path to the west side of the Keeper’s Museum and Giftshop as you head towards the beach.”
I bought the stone for two reasons. First, to support conservation efforts. The second reason was to confuse rural travelers who see the word Jewish and wonder if there is a Jewish history here. “We thought the Jews lived in Miami.”
Don Harrison, editor emeritus of San Diego Jewish World, answers it better: “There is Jewish history everywhere.”
Antonio Martinez Carvajal, the first Jew to live in Florida, was a harbor pilot in the St. Augustine area in 1565. He was a port pilot in the St. Augustine area. They were crypto-Jews, Jews who were forced or selected under duress to convert to Catholicism but remained covertly Jewish in their private customs and ceremonies – a very dangerous activity. The Inquisition kept tabs on the former Jews. Torture and the pyre, the auto-da-fe, were never far away for recidivists.
Organized public Jewish life was impossible under Spanish rule.
In 1819-1820 Florida was sold to the United States by Spain. Jews could finally live openly in the “Sunshine State”. The St. Augustine community grew to a handful of Jewish merchants. Raphael Moses, a fifth-generation South Carolinian Jew, tried his luck there. I didn’t work it out. He eventually moved to Columbus, Georgia and became the father of the Georgia peach industry.
It wasn’t until 1898 that the St. Augustine Jewish community grew large enough to build its first place of worship.
The title for Florida’s first permanent Jewish place of worship belongs to another small Jewish community to the west, in Pensacola. The second Jewish historical marker ever made by the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation (JASHP) marked the site of Temple Beth El, 1876.
Jews migrated from New Orleans to British West Florida when New Orleans was surrendered to the Spanish by Louisiana’s colonizers, the French, in 1762. The changing landscape of European wars traded American territory like maps. Jews understood very well that living under Spanish rule was not healthy. The French did not enforce their Code Noir, the Black Code, against Jews very much. The Spaniards were different. They had something to do with Jews living in their territories.
Jews came to western Florida, the area from Apalachicola to Pensacola, with the British session in 1763.
However, it was the American purchase of Florida from the British in 1819 that kick-started the Jewish presence.
Jews settled throughout North Florida in the 1830s and opened trading companies. They didn’t venture into deep South Florida. Few people wanted to live in the malaria- and alligator-infested swamps of Dade County, Miami.
Central Florida is approximately 150 miles southeast of the JASHP brick at Cape St. George Light. An incredible, little-known Jewish story happened near the tiny village of Micanopy.
JASHP placed a Florida state marker in the small town of Micanopy for Moses Levy.
The text says:
MOSES ELIAS LEVY
“Moses Elias Levy (1782-1854), a Moroccan-born Jewish merchant, came to Florida after his cession from Spain to the United States in 1821. Prior to his arrival, Levy acquired over 50,000 acres in East Florida. In 1822, Levy began developing the Pilgrimage Plantation, northwest of what would become the town of Micanopy. The plantation’s main commodity was sugar cane, which Levy had reintroduced to Florida. Levy and his partners, including the Florida Association of New York, helped attract Jewish settlers to the area with the goal of creating a haven for oppressed European Jews in a communal settlement, the first on US soil. Levy’s efforts sparked significant economic development, fueling the growth of Micanopy from a small trading post to a bustling city. The Pilgrimage was destroyed in 1835 during the Second Seminole War, but Levy’s reform efforts continued. He promoted free public education and served as one of the territory’s first commissioners of education. He was also a staunch advocate of the phasing out of slavery and the humane treatment of enslaved people. Levy was the father of David Levy Yulee, one of the first US Senators from Florida and the first US Senator of Jewish heritage in American history.”
Jews like to claim that David (Levy) Yulee was the first Jewish US Senator. That’s a bit of a stretch. In order to be elected, he had to change his name from Levy to Yulee. Levy was too Jewish. Levy and his son became estranged. Levy was an abolitionist. Yulee was a passionate slave owner. Yulee rejected his inheritance. He married a nice Gentile girl. Years later, he arranged her burial in Washington, DC, under a cross. Yulee had converted.
Jewish life in Florida never grew big until the 20th century. Shvitizing vs. Air Conditioning was a big factor. The Fontainebleau Hotel, South Beach, easy train and plane travel from New York helped a lot.
Jews were very influential in Key West and the Cuban Revolution against the Spanish. That’s a different story, a far cry from JASHP’s brick at Cape St. George Lighthouse.
Maybe I’ll tell you another time.
Jerry Klinger is President of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, www.JASHP.org