By Kelcie Lloyd, Special Programs Manager
After being darkened during the Civil War, on June 1, 1867, the Old Spanish watchtower once more became a functioning lighthouse with the return of its light. Nevertheless, it soon became clear that the structure would soon lose the battle with Mother Nature as the sea continued to erode the land around the lighthouse.
After several reports to the United States Lighthouse Board referencing the erosion and encroaching seas, Congress approved the money for a new St. Augustine Lighthouse tower. The construction of the tower began in 1871, but what was supposed to be a benefit to public transportation and safety, soon turned to tragedy.
Superintendent of Lighthouse Construction, Hezekiah Pittee, moved from Cape Elizabeth, Maine, with his family to oversee construction of the new St. Augustine Lighthouse. Hezekiah lived on site with his wife Mary and their children, Mary Adelaide, Eliza, Edward, and Carrie. Just as child would do, the Pittee children turned the construction site into a playground inviting the children of the workers into their fun.
By 1873, only the foundation and forty-two feet of the 165-foot tower were completed. A railway cart moved the supplies from supply ships docked at Salt Run to the building site. Riding the cart down to the water was a favorite pastime of the Pittee children. They used the cart as a Victorian era rollercoaster, riding the cart to the water and bringing it back up the site to ride again. Only a wooden board at the end of the rail stopped the cart from tipping over into the water.
On July 10, 1873, the three Pittee sisters, Mary (15), Eliza (13), and Carrie (4), along with an unknown African-American girl (10), whose father may have worked on the site, were riding in the cart as normal. The wooden board that stopped the cart from going into the water was not in place. The cart carrying the girls flipped into the water, trapping the girls underneath. Mr. Dan Sessions, a young African-American worker, witnessed the tragic event and raced to the water. When he reached the cart, using all his strength, he lifted it from atop the girls. By this time, three of the four girls had drowned; the only survivor was the youngest, Carrie. In the days after the accident, the construction site as well as the town shut down for the funeral of the girls. Following the funeral, the Pittee family returned to Maine to lay their daughters to rest in their hometown. Staff researchers have not yet been able to find the final resting place of the young African American girl.
In the 145 years since the accident, strange occurrences have been repeatedly attributed to the spirits of the girls. You can read some of them here and determine for yourself if they are fact or fiction. The grown children of the Lighthouse keepers have told us that the home was a terrific place for Halloween parties and for telling ghost stories. So, by offering the Dark of the Moon tours we are proudly carrying on that family tradition.
One story involves a relief Lighthouse Keeper living in the home in the 1950s who reported hearing footsteps upstairs. He went to investigate but no one was up there. The Head Keeper at the time was James Pippin. He served from 1953-1955 and was the last Keeper to live at the Light Station. Pippen initially lived in the Keepers’ House, as all the previous keepers had done, but he moved to the much smaller, 1941 Coastal Lookout Building, swearing that the “big house was haunted and he would not stay another night in it.”
In 1955, the Lighthouse lamp was fully automated, and the United States Coast Guard replaced Lighthouse Keepers with a position called “Lamplighter.” The local Lamplighter had all the duties of a Lightkeeper but did not live on site. As a result, the Keepers’ House was rented for a time. A local man who crafted leather goods rented the property during the 1960s. He tells the story of waking up one night with a small girl standing by his bed. As he blinked his eyes to look at her, she disappeared.
In 1970, after standing empty for many years, the Keepers’ house burned under mysterious circumstances, gutting the home, leaving only the coquina basement and a few charred timbers. St. Johns County purchased the shell of the building with the intention of demolishing it for safety reasons. However, sixteen women in the all-volunteer Junior Service League of St. Augustine stepped in, raising $1.2 million dollars over the next 15 years to restore and renovate the Keepers’ House, Lighthouse tower, and the original, Fresnel lens (a feat never before accomplished). The group added the building to the National Register of Historic Places, with the help of Karen Harvey, a local historian, writer and long-time Lighthouse advocate.
During the renovation, both construction workers and the JSL volunteers reported numerous unexplained incidents in the home. The basement was a particularly active area for ghostly encounters, being the only part of the home that had not completely burned. Perhaps the children liked to play here? Today you can still feel a spooky presence there.
While the children are by no means the only tragedy that occurred in the home, the girls are some of the most active spirits around. Psychics contact staffers frequently, and recently one told us that the young African American girl’s name was Ellie or Eleanor. We continue our archival research and hope to find historical evidence one day to confirm this information.
As playful spirits, the girls enjoy playing hide and seek sometimes including unsuspecting people. One night, in the dark Lighthouse tower, a lone staff member was closing up for the night. He heard giggling at the top of the tower. Thinking that he had left someone on top of the tower, he returned to the top to find it empty. As he began to head back down the tower, he heard the same giggles below him. Descending the bottom, he once again found no one there. Was it just the wind, or was he in the midst of a game of hide and seek?
Another evening a female guest on a Dark of the Moon Tour was standing on the first step of the metal Lighthouse staircase. When she took her first step to climb the tower, she found her shoelace tied to the staircase. Whether it was a ghost or her companion playing a trick, we cannot say.
On another tour, a guide found a group of young women in the basement of the Keepers’ home. One of the young women rented an EMF meter to measure the electrical activity caused by spirits. The young woman holding the meter asked the girls if they wanted to play hide and seek. The meters spiked. The woman wandered the basement searching for the hiding girls, finally finding meter activity under the spiral staircase leading to the main floor. Excitedly, she said she found them and asked if they wanted to play again. Like before, the meter spiked. Once again, the young woman searched the basement for the girls and after several minutes found electrical energy near the children’s play table. About that time, another set of guests came into the basement, and reportedly, the energy dissipated.
The girls sometimes appear to people in fully formed apparitions. Several years ago, during the day, a guest was exploring the maritime hammock trails and came upon a young girl in a Victorian outfit siting on a bench reading a book. As she began to ask the girl a question, another group came up from the opposite direction. Distracted by the group, the women looked away for only a moment and turned back to find the little girl on the bench gone. In a similar instance, a woman on a ghost tour approached another woman to complement her daughter’s behavior on the tour. Confused, the woman said she had no daughter. The other women then told her that a little girl had been standing by her side most of the evening. There were no children on the tour that evening.
So, are you a believer? Obviously, we cannot explain the events that are reported to us on our tours, but we invite you to experience it for yourself. Dark of the Moon tours are the only paranormal tours that put you in the tower with our Lighthouse spirits. Remember as members, you receive a $5 discount on Dark of the Moon Tours or watch for Members Only opportunities in June and October. If you decide to join us on a tour, remember to book well in advance. Whether or not you believe in ghosts, the Dark of the Moon tours help the Museum fund our programs including maritime archaeology and historical research. As you venture into the tower, perhaps you too will join the Pittee girls for a round of hide and seek.