Choctawhatchee Bay Pilings History • Mystery • Legend
by Jamie Conley
on Thursday, February 10th, 2022 at 3:54pm.
When crossing the Hwy 331 Bridge in Santa Rosa Beach, (AKA: The Clyde B. Wells Bridge) have you noticed all the pilings in the distance on the east side and wondered what their story is? They’re hard to miss as the large group of them actually spans a little over a mile long out in the Bay. The pilings provide a favorite perch and resting spot for the pelicans or cormorants who spend their days fishing the waters of the Choctawhatchee Bay.
We've long heard local tales about the Bay Pilings and decided to do a little digging on our own to find out more about them. While there's some genuine history to be found about the old pilings, there’s also some mystery, intrigue, and colorful stories surrounding them as well.
According to the official report released in 1993 by Egin AFB the origin of the pilings follows:
"Test Area D-55 is an air-to-ground radar resolution test facility installed in May 1959 and is currently inactive. It is located in Choctawhatchee Bay and originally consisted of 25 arrays of 2,040 omnidirectional radar corner reflectors, each mounted on a creosote-treated wood piling extending above water. Most of the reflectors are reported missing with wood pilings remaining onsite.”
In addition to the "Official Report" local rumors and speculation about the pilings is commonplace. The one-story that's most often circulated and retold involves some slightly shady shenanigans that took place sometime in the 1960s or 70s. That's when the "story" behind the pilings seems to take a most interesting and colorful turn! According to long-time local history expert Chick Huettel, the pilings which sat long abandoned at this point were originally used by World War II pilots as a radar site for pilots bombing practice. An integral part of the radar detecting mechanism were copper reflector caps which were placed on top of the pilings. And here's where Huettle's account of what happened next gets even more interesting. It seems, a group of "resourceful" locals that supposedly included two county commissioners at the time, were caught, harvesting the copper caps from the pilings. It seems the group had plans to sell the scrap copper for profit. "Needless to say, once the Feds discovered what was going on they didn’t look kindly on the locals' activities." as Huettel recounts the tale! But, lucky for those involved, the government decided not to prosecute; instead making them replace all the caps that had been previously removed!
Truth, fiction, or lore??? We may never know for certain! So, the next time you cross the Bay when you look to the east you'll know a little more of the "the history, mystery and legend behind those Choctawhatchee Bay pilings!