The lighthouse on Mona Island, Puerto Rico has had a rocky existence. Even its beginnings were as rough as the terrain where it now stands.
Plans for the Mona Island Lighthouse were drawn as early as 1868, which called for a massive masonry structure with 25 rooms for keepers, families and supplies. The tower would be attached to the house. At some time this plan was abandoned, probably due to the porous sandstone and rock surface of the island and the fact that there were many caves underneath the surface.
By 1880, the Spanish had plans for a different lighthouse, a metal tower. This lighthouse was very unique during this time because it was the only one in Puerto Rico built of iron and steel, with a house constructed with steel plates and wood framing.
Aside from its structure, the whole edifice was said to be designed by French architect and engineer Gustav Eiffel, after whom the famous Eiffel tower in Paris was named. The lighthouse was initially built by Duclos & Cie in Paris and the U.S. government continued its construction after the Spanish-American War in 1898. Despite the change of builders, the lighthouse tower and its attached house have many metal ornamental elements in their design.
How to bring in parts into the island was another tough challenge that the lighthouse builders had to face. The seas around Mona Island have dangerous reefs and since there is no harbor, there is no easy place to land. The materials for the lighthouse, the keepers' house and the lens were brought from Europe to Mayaguez in the early 1890s, and then from Mayaguez to Mona Island in schooners.
There were two steam launches specially built to move the materials from the schooners to the island. One of them was destroyed on the reefs before it barely began its work. Thus, the remaining steam launch had to bring in 370 tons of material in 96 shiploads. The parts were landed in two separate areas. One was four miles away from the site as the crow flies and men had to build and blast a road to transport the supplies even with great difficulty. The other landing site was about a mile away from the site where the remainder of the materials, including the heavy beams, was offloaded. From this landing area, a narrow gauge track was laid leading along the beach and up into a cave which had once been used for guano mining. An opening had been cut through the roof of the cave to the plateau. There were about 60 steps constructed from the cave to the plateau. Imagine the men, carrying those heavy beams up those 60 steps to the top of Mona Island. They laid tracks again to the lighthouse site. The parts were painted with red lead while the lantern turntable was packed in tallow. Some of the supplies were placed in sheds, protected from the weather.In 1885, however, work on the lighthouse ceased, probably due to revolution in Cuba and the events leading up to the Spanish American War of 1898. In 1899, the U. S. Navy ascertained that a lighthouse was still needed on Mona Island and a team was sent to investigate. Boxes of nuts, bolts and rivets found in the sheds were rusted. The beams, stairs and many other parts of the lighthouse and house were in the open air and unprotected, but being painted with red lead left them in fairly good condition. It was decided that the lighthouse could be built from the materials already there, with some of the small rusted parts needing to be replaced.
Abandoned and Rusted
Mona Island Lighthouse was finished in 1900, with a 2nd order Fresnel lens being the optic. It was visible for about 22 miles. But in 1976, after many years of service, the metal lighthouse was discontinued and left to rust, although modern beacons still light the dangerous Mona Passage. The lens was taken to San Juan.
This lighthouse has to be among the most endangered in the U.S. – along with being one of the most isolated – rusting away in the tropical heat and humidity. There does not seem to be any plans to save the lighthouse, and indeed, it may be past saving, if anyone cares.
In the past, there were many people temporarily on the island: Indians, Conquistadors, guano miners, treasure hunters and shipwreck survivors. Now the temporary visitors are Rangers from the Department of Natural Resources, scientists from the University of Puerto Rico, fishermen, divers, hunters and a few brave campers.
We did not go there; we photographed the lighthouse from a small plane. A friend, Edwin Vargas, camped there recently and sent us photos. He said: “When you go, you find tranquility, just you and nature.”
However, another lighthouse – the Mona Island Lighthouse – will soon be gone and known only through the dusty pages of time.
Editors Note: We are looking for photographs of the lighthouse keepers and their families who lived at the lighthouse in Puerto Rico. If any of our readers can help us, we encourage you to contact us.
About the author: Sandra Shanklin and her husband Bob, known as “The Lighthouse People” have photographed every lighthouse in the United States. They have written a number of successful lighthouse books such as Lighthouses of Hawaii, Lighthouses of Alaska and Lighthouses of Florida. Their book listing every lighthouse in the United States has been a popular item for many years. They are currently working on several other books and when they come out you'll learn first about them in the pages of Lighthouse Digest.
This story appeared in the
October 2004 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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