While we were in St. Augustine we took the bus across Lion Bridge to Anastasia Island. St. Augustine Light Station built-in 1874 is still an active lighthouse and stands at the north end of Anastasia Island. St. Augustine was the site of the first lighthouse established in Florida by the new territorial American Government in 1824.
A map of St. Augustine made by Baptista Boazio in 1589 shows an early wooden watch tower near the Spanish structure which was described as a “beacon” in Drakes’s account. By 1737 Spanish authorities built a more permanent tower that was 52 feet high from coquina taken from a nearby quarry on the island. The structure was regular referred to as a “lighthouse” in documents, including ship’s logs, and nautical charts dating to the British period beginning in 1763.
Early lamps in the first tower burned lard oil, which had to be kept warm to keep it liquified. Multiple lamps with silver reflectors were replaced by a fourth order Fresnel lens in 1855, greatly improving the lighthouse rang and eliminating some maintenance issues. At the beginning of the Civil War in 1861 Paul Arnau a local Menorcan harbor master and Maria De Los Delores Mestre lighthouse keeper removed the lens from the old lighthouse and hid it in order to block Union shipping lanes. The lens and clock works were recovered after Arnau was held captive on a ship off shore and forced to reveal their location. By 1870, beach erosion and changing coastlines were threatening the first lighthouse so construction on a new lighhouse began in 1871 which is 165 feet tall with 219 steps. The old tower crashed into the sea in 1880 but not before the new lighthouse was lit in 1874. The new lighthouse had a new first order Fresnel lens providing a brighter beacon visible up to 25 nautical miles on a clear night. It took over three years to construct the new 161 foot structure. The lighthouse has over one million Alabama bricks, Georgia granite, and topped with Pennsylvanian ironworks. The exterior was painted in distinctive black and white spirals echoing the day markings of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse.
The picture with the blue light is the old cistern, and the spiral stair case was installed during the renovation to the basement.
In 1876 the Keepers house was built and the first to have a basement in Florida. A system of pipes and drains carried fresh rain water from the roof to the basement cistern, where family’s could store and use the water as needed. They added chalk to the water in the cistern and stirred it in with a big wooden paddle. Keepers were instructed to add chalk to overcome the effects of lead-based paint on their health. Brick drains located in front and back of the house carried away wastewater.
When the Keepers house was built it didn’t have indoor bathrooms instead there facilities were outside. The first ones were made of wood and were in the corner behind the lighthouse. In 1886 two brick kitchens were added to the light station, replacing older wooden structures. Because working the lighhouse at nigh was a full-time job, keepers lived on site. The head keeper and assistant keeper lived in this Victorian duplex with their families and the second assistant keeper lived in a room upstairs. The second assistant was usually the son of a local family and he was expected to do the heavy work of carrying oil and running up and down the tower steps. William Russel was the first lighthouse keeper in the new tower and the only keeper to have worked both towers. In 1876 William A. Harn and his wife Kate Skillen Harn was the head keeper for the next twenty yrs. After her husband’s death Kate Harn became Second Assistant Keeper for a time before returning to her home in Main. Early in the history of lighthouses there were no bridges from the mainland and little development on the island. The maritime hammock and the surrounding water isolated the lighhouse and the families who lived there. Families lived off the land hunting and fishing to supplement supplies from U.S. lighhouse service.
Steamships named Fern and Armeria arrived with supplies and sometime surprised inspections. The lighthouse keepers had to maintain signal buoys and channel markers and attempted to rescue shipwrecked passengers, and crew. A keepers wife did the gardening, cooking, cleaning, and he children pitched in to maintain the grounds and caring for the animals. Women and children over the age of 12 were required to know how to run the site in the absence of the keeper. The light house keeper had to carry a 30lb oil bucket to the top of the tower every two hours. We lifted the bucket it was very heavy, glad that wasn’t my job.
He also had to polish the lens and wind the clockwork mechanism that kept the lens rotating. There job was never finished. Rotating the first order Fresnel lens required a clockwork mechanism with weights running down the center of the tower to the weight well at the bottom. A cable connected to gears at the top of the towers would attach the weight to the turning mechanism. Keepers wound the weights up by hand every two hours. As the weight descended slowly, it would turn the gears which would rotate the lens around the lamp. Keepers cleaned the lamp nightly and worked to get the flame at the right height. Larger lens allowed for a higher flame. The hammock still holds a variety of wildlife and native plants and trees. In 1885 after many experiments with different types of oils the lamp was converted from lard oil to kerosene. In 1907 indoor plumbing reached the light station followed by electricity in the keepers quarters in 1925. The light was electrified in 1936 and automated in 1955. By 1960 there was no need for a lighthouse keeper and the house was rented to local residents. In 1970 St. Johns County bought the house in the same year it suffered a devastating fire at the hands on an unknown arsonist. In 1980, 15 women in the Junior Service League signed a 99 year lease with the county for the keepers house and surrounding grounds and began a massive restoration projet. The antique lens was a functional unit, it was damaged by rife fire in 1986 and 19 of the prisms were broken. As the lens weaken the Coast Guard considered removing and replacing it with an airport beacon. The 9 foot tall lens was restored by Joe Cocking and Nick Johnston retired Coast Guardsmen.
Despite the natural disasters and the beach erosion that claimed the original spanish tower, the current lighthouse is standing strong.
St. Augustine lighthouse was designed after Cape Hatteras in North Carolina but don’t get the two confused because Cape Hatteras top is black and St. Augustines is red.