Tuesday, August 18, 2009

St. Augustine Lighthouse, FL

St. Augustine was the site of the first lighthouse established in Florida by the new, territorial, American Government in 1824. According to some archival records and maps, this "official" American lighthouse was placed on the site of an earlier watchtower built by the Spanish as early as the late 16th century. The Map of St. Augustine depicting Sir Francis Drake's attack on the city by Baptista Boazio, 1589, shows an early wooden watch tower near the Spanish structure. By 1737, Spanish authorities built a more permanent tower from coquina taken from a nearby quarry on the island. Archival records are inconclusive as to whether the Spanish used the coquina tower as a lighthouse.

Early lamps in the first tower burned lard oil. Multiple lamps with silver reflectors were replaced by a fourth order Fresnel lens in 1855, greatly improving the lighthouse's range and eliminating some maintenance issues. After many experiments with different types of oils, in 1885 the lamp was converted from lard oil to kerosene. During World War II, Coast Guard men and women trained in St. Augustine, and used the lighthouse as a lookout post for enemy ships and submarines which frequented the coastline. In 1907 indoor plumbing reached the light station, followed by electricity in the keeper's quarters in 1925. The light itself was electrified in 1936, and automated in 1955. As the light was automated, positions for three keepers slowly dwindled down to two and then one. No longer housing lighthouse families by the 1960s, the Keepers House was rented to local residents. Eventually it was declared surplus, and St. Johns County bought it in 1970.

In 1980 a small group of 15 women in the Junior Service League (JSL) of St. Augustine signed a 99 year lease with the county for the keeper's house and surrounding grounds. The JSL turned back the bulldozers and began a massive restoration project. Shortly after the JSL adopted the restoration the League signed a 30-year lease with the Coast Guard to begin a restoration effort on the lighthouse tower itself. The lighthouse was subsequently placed on the
National Register of Historic Places in 1981 by local preservationist and author Karen Harvey.

The antique lens was functional until it was damaged by rifle fire in 1986 and 19 of the prisims were broken. Lamplighter Hank Mears called the FBI to investigate this crime. As the lens continued to weaken, the Coast Guard considered removing it and replacing it with a more modern, airport beacon. Again championed by the JSL, this plan was dismissed and the 9 foot-tall lens was restored. Joe Cocking and his partner Nick Johnston, both currently retired from the Coast Guard, worked tirelessly to perform this the first restoration of its kind in the nation. These two experts work with Museum staff and continue to care for the lens. Volunteers from Northrop Grumman Corporation and Florida Power & Light clean and inspect the lens and works every week.

Today, the St. Augustine Light Station consists of the 165-foot 1874 tower, the 1876 Keepers' House, two summer kitchens added in 1886, a 1941 U.S. Coast Guard barracks and a 1936 garage that was home to a jeep repair facility during World War II. The site is also a
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather station.

Today, it is the Museum that keeps the light burning as a private aid-to-navigation in America's oldest port city. Without the museum staff and volunteers the light would go dark.

The St. Augustine Lighthouse is on the north end of
Anastasia Island, within the current city limits of St. Augustine, Florida. The tower, built in 1874, is owned by the
St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum, Inc. (SAL&M), a not-for-profit maritime museum and private aid-to-navigation. Open to the public, admissions support continued preservation of the Lighthouse and fund programs in maritime archaeology and education.

For more Info:

Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP) website

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