In 1589 Italian cartographer (mapmaker), Giovanni Battista Boazio published his map of the raid of Sir Francis Drake on St. Augustine three years earlier. The map is the first documented archival reference of a wooden watchtower at the end of Anastasia Island. The watchtowers were erected by the Spanish crown during the building of the Castillo De San Marcos to keep enemy ships from taking Anastasia Island. The watchtower at the north end of the island eventually became the St. Augustine Lighthouse, and the one at the sound end became Fort Matanzas National Monument.
By 1737, the Spanish replaced earlier construction with a new 30-foot watchtower made of coquina (shell rock) and wood. A canoe was kept at the centinella for helping those stationed there warn the town of approaching vessels. A spar with halyards was raised to signal the direction from which ships traveled. Ships coming from the north might signal an enemy arrival.
Spain and Great Britain were often at war during this period. Just a few years before in 1731, the British Brigantine Rebecca had been boarded off the coast of La Florida by the Costa Guarda, on a ship named La Isabela. The Spanish captain, Juan de Leon Fandino reportedly cut off the left ear of British Capitan Robert Jenkins after accusations of smuggling. Years later, the British press whipped up a frenzy surrounding the incident when Great Britain attempted to take over Caribbean trade routes.
In 1739, Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose was established north of St. Augustine. Spanish Governor Manuel de Montiano created the community for escaped slaves and free blacks fleeing the English territories. Fort Mose attracted runaway slaves to Florida. Many traveled local waterways across the border. Running to freedom of course provoked the anger of British planters, and British forces occupied Mose during General James Oglethorpe’s 1740 siege of St. Augustine, destroying the fort. However, in 1752, the Spanish rebuilt the Fort Mose, and free people lived there until the British occupation of East Florida in 1763. Fort Mose was the first free African American Community in the United States.
The French and Indian War (aka the Seven Years War) finally ended. The British and her American colonies had defeated the combined forces of Spain and France. Florida was ceded to Great Britain and divided into East and West Florida. The new protectorates, including new Canadian territories, were added to the British Empire in alphabetical order, making Florida, East, and Florida, West the 14th and 15th British colonies in North America.
The Capital of East Florida was St. Augustine, a town of 500 homes. Spanish residents left for Cuba taking everything, even the nails in the wood. The British arrived at an empty town. However, they set about the task of stimulating trade and settlement. Grants of land were offered to those who were willing to settle in Florida within 10 years.
The British quickly heightened the Spanish watchtower on Anastasia Island with 30 feet of wooden construction. Many archival references support the establishment of a lighthouse in St. Augustine during the British Period (1763-1783). A 1764 French chart expertly details the maritime landscape of St. Augustine. The “Plan D Port de St. Augustine, dans la Flordie” by Royal French Hydrographer, Jacques Nicholas Bellin, in Petite Atlas Maritime, (P.K. Yong Library, The University of Florida) marks the lighthouse on Anastasia as a “balise “meaning “signal” or “mark.” Bellin is widely considered an expert in cartography of the waters of the Americas. His chart of the port at St. Augustine directs ships’ traffic through the narrow channel directly to the east of the “signal.”
In 1780, “A Plan of the Harbour of St. Augustine, Province of Georgia” by J.F.W Des Barres, Esq. in “Atlantic Neptune” Lists the word “lighthouse” on Anastasia Island (Kenneth Atherton of The British Cartographic Society, 2002) And, in 1794, “A Plan of Harbour of St. Augustine” by Capt. N. Holland An inset from Plate 31 of “A New Chart of the Coast of North America, identifies a “lighthouse” on Anastasia Island. The map displays a symbol of smoke from the top of the tower.
Shipwrecks continued to be serious problems. Provisions aboard the ill-fated supply ship, HMS Industry, have been studied by Museum archaeologists. HMS Industry sank off the shallow St. Augustine sand bar in 1763 carrying cannon with distinctive markings, the crest of King George II and the British Navy broad arrow. The cannon were destined for Fort Matanzas. Also lost were supplies of iron bar stock, axes, and grindstones for use in building the new colony.
Despite setbacks shipping and trade to and from East Florida increased under Governor Grant as the town traded with British colonies to the north. St. Augustine became a military stronghold for the British, but the relationship of Great Britain to its American colonies had shifted.The Stamp Act Crisis of 1765 (an attempt to pay for war debts) built an environment of rebellion that would eventually lead to the American Revolution.
On the night of New Year’s Eve, 1782, some 16 ships wrecked during a nor’ easter while attempting to enter the harbor. The ships were a few of the hundreds used by the British to evacuate Charles Town, (Charleston) SC, on December 14, 1781, following American victory in the Revolutionary War. Museum archaeologists have excavated one of these ships under permit from the State of Florida. Visitors can explore our findings in the exhibition, Wrecked!
Following the evacuation of its colonies to the north, the population of British St. Augustine swelled to about 30,000 people, about the same size as Philadelphia during the day. Thousands of Native Americas also came and camped outside the City Gates seeking British protection. Governor Patrick Tonyn struggled to feed and protect everyone, and he eventually closed out all British interests south of New York. Florida was ceded back to the Spanish in the 1783 Treaty of Paris. St. Augustine was once again a military outpost on the fringe of Spain’s colonies.
The Spanish quickly tore down the British, wooden construction atop the old watchtower, and then refortified it with coquina. If the tower was used as a lighthouse by the British, it may have returned to use as a watchtower under the Spanish system.
Maritime commerce continued to expand in the Spanish colony. An ongoing study by the St. Augustine Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP) of historical customs documents from the beginning of the Second Spanish Period in 1784 has shown that trade to St. Augustine was dominated by the newly independent ports of Savannah and Charleston. In 1806, 42 ships called at the port of St. Augustine, 37 from the United States and 5 from Havana (Griffin, 1983, as cited in Turner, Burke, Meide, 2007.). Business transports were small, shallow-draft Goleta, schooners, and balandras. Cargoes included barrels of flour, line for ship’s rigging, sweets, soap, Madeira wine, and a customary amount of beer.
It is during the Second Spanish period that many of the St. Augustine’s oldest families settled permanently here, returning from Cuba where they had fled before the American Revolution. Families named Hernandez, Sanchez, and Ponce among others, still populate the local area today.
Originally lit with a system of Winslow Lewis Argand lamps and reflector panels, the light from lighthouses in America was harder to see from ship than similar lighthouse beams that shown along the coast of Europe. A French engineer by the name of Jean Augustin Fresnel (pronounced Fruh-nel) perfected the Fresnel lens by 1822, changing modern optics forever. Nevertheless, the US Treasury was slow to adopt this improved system because of the expense of changing out the lenses. Instead, the light tower at St. Augustine was raised another 10 feet in 1852 in an effort to improve visibility. Finally, by 1853, the St. Augustine tower was held a new fourth-order Fresnel lens. A single lard oil lamp, fueled by whale oil was used for light.
During the American Civil War, (1861-1865) Confederate sympathizers living in St. Augustine removed and hid the lens and clockwork mechanisms in order to block Union shipping. The Union Navy steamed into the harbor on gunboats and took over St. Augustine peacefully. After jailing the future, St. Augustine Mayor Paul Arnau on a prison ship the whereabouts of the clockworks and lens was revealed.
The victorious American government relit the beacon in 1867. However, as the sea level was rising, it would not be long before a new St. Augustine Light Station was required. Now “professional” lighthouse keepers would be transferred from northern states to replace those Confederate sympathizers running the port before.
It soon became evident that this first St. Augustine Lighthouse tower was doomed to fall into the ocean. The US Congress appropriated $100,000 funding for a new lighthouse during the Florida Reconstruction Period. The U.S. Lighthouse Service began construction on a new 165-foot tower in 1871 and did not finish until 1874 Workers from St. Augustine included African American residents. Temporary buildings to house both people and horses were constructed on site and then were torn down so as not to change the appearance of the Light Station from the sea, as regulations required.
On October 15, 1874, lighthouse keeper William R. Russell lit the oil lamp inside the new, first-order Fresnel lens for the first time. He most likely walked to the tower from his residence at the old, St. Augustine Light Station, upon which the sea was rapidly encroaching. The lens is 9-feet tall, and Russell would have had to climb inside it to light the lamps.
The jewel-like lens was hand-made just for St. Augustine in Paris, France by the company of Sauter & Lemonier. It represented the height of Victorian engineering and technology and cast its beam much farther out to sea than its predecessor. The new light now demonstrated three, fixed-flashes, from three, bulls-eye panels that could be seen from up to 19- 24 nautical miles depending on atmospheric conditions. Fueled by oil and then kerosene before electricity came to the Light Station, the original lens would have given off a brightly hued, yellow light. Citizens living in town would have immediately noticed, and many have remained interested in it ever since.
On February 28, 1889, The Saint Augustine Weekly News described the lens in the following manner, “The lamp was a brass cylinder of 10 gallons capacity. Inside it has a heavyweight, which governs the flow of oil to the burner. The burner has five wicks in concentric circles. A chimney leads to the roof. It has a damper, which regulates the flame. The globe is a huge case of glass, which revolves around the lamp every 9 minutes. It makes a flash every three minutes when a big bulls-eye lines up between the lamp and the human eye. The cage weighs two tons.”
The authentic lens remains active and preserved in the St. Augustine Lighthouse today thanks to the efforts of the Junior Service League of St. Augustine and its president Virginia Whetstone, Dan Spinella, Cullen Chambers and USCG veterans Joe Cocking and Nick Johnston of Lighthouse Lamp Shop. The team saved the lens from a vandal’s bullet over a quarter of a century ago. The United States Coast Guard gave the lighthouse tower and the Fresnel lens to the Museum in 2002 in recognition of the strength of the Museum organization.
According to Thomas Graham’s Awakening of St. Augustine, “On May 11, 1874, First Lt. Richard H. Pratt assumed custody of 72 Indian prisoners and escorted them by train to St. Augustine. The captives were Kiowa, Comanches, Cheyennes, Arapahos and one Caddo. Separated from their families, the distraught prisoners starved themselves or perished on the journey. One was shot attempting to escape.”
The prisoners were initially shackled and confined in the humid fort. However, eventually, Pratt allowed the men to bathe in the inlet and cut their hair. He issued them an army uniform and allowed them to visit Anastasia Island where they ran foot races, learned about oyster roasts and fished for sharks, a fish they named “water buffalo.” They eventually roamed about the town and even helped put out a house fire. (Graham, T., 2008, 5, p. 40-41).
The native captives witnessed the lighting of the new lighthouse tower that took place on October 15, 1874. The enhancement to transportation must have been enormous. More advancement in transportation, however, soon brought about a decline in the importance of our local lighthouse. The railroad had been developing locally since the 1850s.
In 1883, a river rail between Jacksonville, St. Augustine, and Halifax made arrival easier. Moreover, in the winter of 1884, a wealthy visitor named Henry Flagler, a partner with John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil, came to St. Augustine and decided to transform it. Flagler developed St. Augustine into a major resort town for wealthy patrons from northern climates, heralding Florida as paradise. He also provided a means for tourists to arrive at and check into his new hotels safely, investing in both rail lines and steamships. St. Augustine quickly flourished with increased tourism. Flagler extended his railroads and hotels south into Florida developing Palm Beach and eventually even building a railroad into Key West, a move that some called Flagler’s Folly.
In the late 1880’s Victorian, tourists from Henry Flagler’s grand hotels visited the island by horse-drawn cart or by rowboat for day excursions. Guests occasionally had tea on the large lighthouse rubble at low tide. African Americans built fires for oyster roasts and helped row the tourists to the island and back, making extra money on which to survive.
The steam engine meant that movement upstream, against the current or against the wind became much more manageable. But, shipwrecks still occurred, as one located by St. Augustine Lighthouse archaeologists attests. The vessel is a steam engine that is filled with barrels of concrete. Perhaps this shipment was meant as building materials for use in Flagler’s grand hotels?
At any rate, over all it was much easier for steam-powered vessels using St. Augustine’s harbor to power around the shallow bar. And, the new lighthouse and the railroad allowed farmers and fishermen to ship goods quickly and effectively to eager northern markets. Hastings, in west St. Johns County, soon became the potato and vegetable capital of the region while St. Augustine’s commercial fishing industry flourished after the turn of the 20th century.
A Coastal Lookout Building was constructed at the St. Augustine Light Station in late 1941 and early 1942 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. However, life had not changed dramatically on the East Coast. Americans still felt a sense of separation the war. The sinking of the SS Gulf America off the coast of Jacksonville, FL in April 1942 changed that feeling. Candlepower in the lighthouse was reduced. Blackout curtains were required in every home, and cars drove without headlights. The war was close by.
U-Boat 123, Korvettsenkapitan Reinhard Hardegen was on his second patrol to the Americas. The mission was to interrupt British supply lines and demoralize everyday citizens. On his first journey, he sailed into the harbor of NYC and looked out at the American shoreline. Now, Hardegen prowled the St. Johns County and Duval County coast before finding a target for his torpedoes. He mentioned “the slender lighthouse” in his logbook, and noted how clearly the coast could be seen without binoculars. The explosion of the SS Gulf America could be seen for miles. Eyewitnesses rushed to the beach to watch as Hardegan surfaced his U-boat between the tanker and the shore and fired on the vessel to finish it off. Despite being hit by depth charges, U-123 managed to escape and limped back to Germany.
Not long after in June 1942 German spies from Operation Pastorius choose Ponte Vedra (and New York) as landing sites. A submarine surfaced in view of the shore and four men disembarked, buried explosives, and caught a bus to Jacksonville. At least one of them spoke perfect English. The FBI learned of the operation when one of the NYC team became nervous and reported the others. Buried on Ponte Vedra beach were blocks of TNT molded as soap for the laundry, a “pen” that could start fires, and a detonation device. The four spies from Ponte Vedra were executed within weeks of landing.
The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard responded with beach patrols using Jeeps, horses and guard dogs. Armed guards were stationed at St. Augustine Lighthouse to watch the sea 24 hours a day. The passing of each friendly ship was marked with a board and a string. Coordinates were radioed to U.S. Naval Headquarters at Government House, and the next watch station was alerted. The men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard, trained at St. Augustine’s Flagler College and all over St. Johns County for service around the world.
Thousands of veterans’ artifacts are preserved by the Museum staff. You can help us tell this story when you visit. Thank you.
In 1970, a suspicious fire gutted the vacated keeper’s house, which had been declared excess by the government. St. Johns County was about to purchase the property, and condominiums were discussed as one possibility for the best use of the land. In 1980, as bulldozers threatened, in stepped the Junior Service League with a will to restore the property and open a maritime museum. The site was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Over the next 15 years, the Junior Service League would dig in hands-on and raise over $1.2 million to restore the keepers’ house, the lighthouse tower and the original Fresnel lens. The lens had been shot by a vandal’s bullet, damaging 19 prisms in the beehive structure. The US Coast Guard shut down the lens in 1991 and replaced it with a modern airport beacon, but the League quickly rose to this challenge. The keepers’ house restoration was finished in 1990, and in 1991, the League signed a lease with the U.S. Coast Guard and opened part time to the public. In 1993, the Junior Service League of St. Augustine held the first Community Day with a lens relighting and fireworks. The Cable News Network (CNN) covered the first restoration of a Fresnel lens in the nation.
A maritime museum opened full-time in early 1994. What is today the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum Inc., separately incorporated from the League in 1998. A community based Board of Trustees was seated representing the diversity of the area. The following year, a second not-for-profit, the St. Augustine Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program was formed to help the Museum study shipwrecks and coastal resources.
In 2001, Museum archaeologists recorded the foundations of the first lighthouse tower, as well as working on the remains of the first of a series of British shipwrecks off shore, under permit from the State of Florida.
Today in addition to an active research program, the Museum owns the entire Light Station property, including the tower and Fresnel lens, given to the Museum by the United States Coast Guard in 2002. A national preservation award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation recognized the work of the Museum in establishing a new federal preservation law and continuing to preserve the site to the Secretary’s Standards
A collection of 19,000 objects, archival documents and archaeological specimens is held in trust for future generations at the Museum. Over 216,000 visitors including thousands of school age children enjoy educational programs and tours. Visitors can step up to help the non-profit St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum save maritime history. The Museum is a Smithsonian affiliate that was accredited by the American Alliance of Museums in 2017.
The current lighthouse tower is 145 years old in October 2019. It is one part of an aid-to-navigation system here supporting military defense, travel, trade, fishing, boat building and pleasure boating since the 16th century.