Thursday, April 2, 2009

St. Augustine Lighthouse

Oh, I have been very, very bad and not posted a lighthouse visit for months! True, it is winter, and lighthouse visiting here in the Northeast tends to lessen in the winter, but still it is unforgivable. Please forgive me anyway.

So, as a special treat, we are going out of state, leaving the Garden State of New Jersey for a moment to head south to the Sunshine State of Florida and visit the very pretty St. Augustine lighthouse. The Bro, the Sil (sister-in-law for you internet challenged) and I flew down to visit The Niece, who is a college student in Florida, and on a free day, we all took a road trip to America's Oldest City to visit the lighthouse. You might not be surprised, but that was my idea and they graciously went along and we all had a lovely day.

It is all one can want in a lighthouse. It is tall, it is conical, it has stripes!
But a bit of background first. The lighthouse that now stands there is not the first structure that has stood on Anastasia Island. On the feast day of St. Augustine in the year 1565, the Spanish fleet, led by Pedro Menendez de Aviles, landed on the northern coast of what is now Florida and established the first European settlement in America, naming it in honor of the saint. Soon, it was quite a thriving port and a watchtower was built on the barrier island, most likely with a fire at the top at night to mark entry to the port.

In 1673, the Spanish started construction of a large fort on the mainland, Castillo de San Marco. which is still standing and certainly worth a visit as well. The fort was built of conqina, a natural limestone material composed of shells, quartz sand and clay. A few decades later, it was decided to build a new watchtower of the same material on the island to replace the wooden tower and after Florida was ceded to the United States in 1821, it was decided to use the still standing conquina tower as a lighthouse. Over the next few decades, several additions were made, removing part of the original structure and adding a 73 foot tall brick addition, raising it's height, installing oil lamps and reflectors and then a fourth order Fresnel lens in 1855.

But as a lighthouse, it was less than ideal and there was a a real threat of the tower collapsing from erosion, so in 1871, Congress authorized funds to build a new tower, the one that presently stands. Paul Petz, who also designed the Library of Congress, was hired as the architect, and the 165 foot tall tower was completed in 1874. The bricks for the lighthouse came from Alabama, granite was shipped from Georgia, the iron work infrastructure was made in Philadelphia, dismantled and shipped to Florida and then rebuild on the site, the new first-order Fresnel lens was made and sent from France. It was painted with it's distinctive black and white spiral and red lantern top, it's 'daymark' which has remained unchanged ever since.

There were three keepers stationed at the lighthouse, each taking an eight hour shift. Their duties included climbing the 214 steps to the top every 3 to 4 hours after dark, carrying buckets of oil, weighing about 30 pounds each, to replenish the lanterns and to rewind a winch for the 275 pound weight that slowly descended, moving the gears that revolved the len, like a giant grandfather clock. In the daytime, of course, the work never stopped either. Every prism of the lens had to be cleaned and polished, maintenance had to be done on the tower and they also had to maintain their own garden and livestock and maintain the keepers house that was built in 1876 for them and their families. From time to time they also had to act as lifesavers, for ships that struck one of the nearby sandbars and floundered.

These were probably the heydays of the tower, in the years leading up to WWI. The tower became quite a tourist attraction. In the 1800's there was a tramway across the marsh and then in 1895, the St. Augustine and South Beach Railroad brought visitors to the lighthouse, as many as 10,000 a year by 1909. In 1927, the historic Bridge of Lions was completed and now one could easily cross it from St. Augustine to Anastasia Islamd.
And of course, there were always the exploits of the keeper's families. One of my favorites is recounted at
"Life at the station was full of varied activities for the keeper’s children as well. One noted story involves Cardell "Cracker" Daniels, son of keeper C.D. Daniels. Cracker would regularly use the tall tower in his backyard as a launching pad for his model airplanes and parachutes. After safely parachuting several inanimate objects off the tower, Cracker decided it was time for a live experiment. Cracker’s sister, Wilma, had a cat named Smokey, who was selected as the paratrooper. After a couple of practice descents from lesser heights, the reluctant cat was tossed from the top of the tower with the parachute strapped to its back. When the frightened feline reached the ground, it quickly fled from the area. Unaware of Cracker’s antics, Wilma searched far and near for her cat over the next several days. It was about a month before Smokey finally returned home, but it wasn’t until several years later that the family learned the real reason for the cat’s disappearance."

I assume the cat did not find it funny....and you cat lovers might not

In 1936, electricity was finally brought to the tower, lessening the duties of the keeper and in 1955 the tower was automated. Sadly, as with many other lighthouse, so began it's decline. The former keeper's house was rented out as apartments and fell into disrepair, being boarded up in the 1960's and then severely damaged by fire in 1970. But it was that act that resulted in the wonderful restoration both the lighthouse and keeper's house have undergone in recent years.

When the county threatened to tear the keeper's house down, the Junior Service League of St. Augustine had it place on the National Register of Historic Places and in 1982 signed a 99 year least for the building, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore the building and finally to open it as the Lighthouse Museum. In 1990, they then signed a 30 year lease with the Coast Guard for the closed up lighthouse and undertook a restoration of the lighthouse and the first ever repair of a Fresnel lens, the 9 foot tall original lens that had been damaged by vandal's bullets.

After 14 years and at a cost of $1.2 million dollars the complete restoration of the lighthouse was complete and in 2002 the lighthouse was deeded to the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum, Inc, a not-for-profit group that operates it today.
And a fine job they do. The lighthouse is in excellent condition, surrounded by beautiful nature trails . There is also a very nice separate gift shop and the keepers house continues to be opened as a museum. If you are in north Florida, you really don't want to miss making a visit to this very nice lighthouse.

Of course, you will not be able to visit with the World's Cutest Doggie! But the view will still be as nice, the ocean from the one side, the old city from the other.


  1. I've never been to St. Augustine, but I've heard great things about it. Did Bandit go to the top of the lighthouse?

  2. no Bandit, and the Sil, had no desire to go to the top, go they waited on a nice safe bench at the bottom. c

  3. That is amazing...your first picture looks EXACTLY like the one I posted! You have certainly done the lighthouse justice with your historical background and pictures of the campus and view. I loved this one in particular. Many around Florida are just starting their improvements and renovations, and most you cannot climb, let alone have a museum or gift shop. I love St. Augustine in general. It is, by far, the best historical town you can visit in Florida. Our 4th grade students go every year for their field trip.

  4. but it's my picture...really! ;-)
    We were able to spend as much time in the town as I would have wished. so I guess I will just have to go back when I am in Florida again.

    I must say, we in NJ are pretty lucky, lighthouse wise. almost all are in very good shape, with a large group of volunteers that staff gift shops and give tours and raise money.

    but St. Augustine was right up there with the best IHMO.

  5. Hi there,

    There's an award waiting for you here

  6. Great photos and really interesting post. You will probably not be surprised to hear that I love lighthouses. I need a good coastal vacation this year I think!

  7. HI i was going to post a comment yesterday but the fed-ex man came with my medicine and i was so distracted by it! i wanted him to play with me but he didn't so i was kind of upset and i couldn't get back into reading.

    now i am feeling better. i remember that day fondly!

  8. Such lovely pictures! I especially like the one at the bottom with Bandit. So cute!

  9. Nicole, a coastal vacation is always the best..because that is usually where the lighthouses are.

    Bandit...I thought that you could only read Italian? hmmm?

    Lana...he is the cutest dog in the world! ;-)

  10. hey, Caite, congrats! You are lucky # 13 selected by in my contest for Oolong Dead. Please send me your address so I can let Laura know. florida982002[at]

  11. Excellent!! I do just love to win things....sending the info on it's way...Thanks again!


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