Thousands of visitors to the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum have heard Rick Cain’s stories of the bravery and dedication of the old-time keepers who overcame difficult conditions to insure the beacon would keep flashing. But when Hurricane Frances roared past the historic lighthouse last Sunday and Monday nights, he learned first-hand what it was like to keep the important navigation beacon flashing in the face of a massive storm’s night time fury.
“When the electric power went out on Sunday, I knew it was up to me to make certain the light would be flashing that night,” said Cain, Director of Operations at the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum. “That’s when I realized I would be getting a taste of the kind of work performed by the lamplighters of the past.”
From the time the lighthouse opened in 1874 until the light became electrified in 1936, the keepers had to lug heavy buckets of lard or kerosene up the 219-steps of the tower to the lens room to keep the light glowing. Fortunately, for Cain a generator is now
available to provide back up power in the case of an emergency.
“The generator is a lifesaver, but it’s not just a matter of starting the engine and throwing a switch,” Cain said. “Running the light from the generator requires at least two trips to the top of the tower each evening - more if the generator stalls or runs out of gas.”
Cain said the eeriest part of his job was climbing up the spiral
staircase to the lens room with only a flashlight for illumination. Halfway up, it was almost as if he were lost in a vertical tunnel. To make the situation even more disturbing, the screaming winds were amplified by the acoustics inside the tower.
Each night, Cain got some company - his 15-year old daughter Anna helped one evening and 13-year old Meagen was with him the next.
“With my daughters along, the situation became even more like the old days when the lighthouse keeper and his family led an isolated existence here on Anastasia Island,” Cain said. “They had big responsibilities and when the light failed - they knew they had failed too.”
Even though the generator continued to hum and the light flashed its signature beacon every 30 seconds, Cain and his daughters couldn’t help but feel that at any moment the engine could fail. The resulting darkness would require another long climb up into the tower’s inky blackness while the wind howled.
“We’re really proud of the work Rick and his daughters
performed,” said Kathy Fleming, Director of the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum. “It really proves just how dedicated our employees can be and sets a great example for other private
organizations seeking to acquire and operate lighthouses.”
Fleming noted that the St. Augustine Lighthouse was one of the very first turned over to a private organization by the Federal Government. As part of the program, the new owners have to agree to continue to maintain the intricate machinery that keeps the beacons rotating - work that was formerly performed by the U.S. Coast Guard.
“I really think Rick’s work shows the value of having trained and dedicated local employees,” Fleming added. “We could never match the Coast Guard’s experience and expertise, but we now know we can keep the beacon flashing under difficult conditions without asking them to abandon other important duties and come all the way down from Mayport to help us. For someone caught in a
hurricane at sea, that could be the
difference between life and death.”
For more information on visiting the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum, go to www.LighthouseDigest.com and type in St. Augustine in the search box.
This story appeared in the
November 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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