With all the hammering and sawing going on at Lighthouse Depot, it seemed a good time to set up a trip to St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum, which we had heard so much about from many customers visiting the store this past summer. My good friend and lighthouse photographer Alan Headley had already arranged a tour with Karen Morris, the public relations officer there. So I headed south on my journey to Florida.
Kathy Fleming, the executive director, along with Karen, welcomed us and filled us in on the history and development of the site at St. Augustine Lighthouse. It is extensive and ongoing because of recent archeological discoveries made just 325 yards from the lighthouse.
The current lighthouse was completed in 1874 and replaced the original wood Spanish watchtower, which was recognized in 1824 as Florida's first lighthouse. The current 165-foot candy striped tower with the red lens has 219 stairs. Work began on an elaborate brick keepers' dwelling in 1875, which housed the head keeper, first assistant and their families. Other small buildings followed shortly.
Electricity came to the tower in 1936 as a motor replaced a clockwork/gear system. In 1939 the Coast Guard assumed control. During WWII armed guards were stationed at the top, and the light was reduced from 20,000 candlepower to 4,000 candlepower so as not to "light up" convoy ships for the U-boats outside. A captured radio transmission from a German U-boat mentions seeing the lighthouse and people on the beach.
The keepers lived on site until 1955 when the light was automated. In 1970, the vacant keepers house was gutted by fire. After much debate as to what to do with the remains, the very active Junior Service League of St. Augustine accepted the challenge of raising funds to totally restore the house, and a 99-year lease was signed. The site was then added to the National Register of Historic Places. Restoration took four years and the museum opened in 1988. However the tower remained closed to the public until the JSL negotiated a 30 lease with the Coast Guard to maintain and restore the tower.
In December of 1986, a vandal shot up the First Order Fresnel lens with a 30.06 rifle. The cost of that lens repair was added to the complete restoration, which totaled 1.2 million dollars. The tower was then opened to the public on a daily basis.
In 1999, the lighthouse and museum say 140,000 visitors make it the second largest tourist attraction in St. Augustine, which by itself, is a great city to tour. Incidentally, out of the thirty lighthouses in Florida, only six are open to the public. The museum at St. Augustine is a beautiful recreation of the Keepers' house, as it would have looked in the 1800s. Part of the house currently contains a gift shop, and ground has been broken for a new visitors center, which will have a larger gift shop.
We were told there are instances of ghostly happenings that have occurred in the cellar of the museum, which holds many exhibits. One story is about a large doll that belonged to the keeper's daughter, and is always kept in a large glass case. Some previous employees and visitors have stated that the doll's eyes have moved to follow the movement of people around the room.
On one occasion, the doll was found in the room outside the glass case.
There is also a great story of Smokey the Cat, which belonged to Wilma Daniels, daughter of the keeper. It seems that she decided it might be fun to see if Smokey could fly. She proceeded to rig a cloth parachute with a harness and attach it to the cat, then promptly let it go from the top of the tower. The cat survived but ran away and didn't show up for two weeks.
All told, the museum is geared to children as well as adults. There are interactive CD-ROM programs throughout the museum. Festivities include Easter egg hunts, Halloween treats and Christmas festivals. They even have an "artifact dig" for kids.
The current renovation going on now was supposed to be a routine paint job, being done by the famous lighthouse experts from International Chimney, Inc. However, upon setting up the scaffolding under the tower, Ron Uplinger from ICI discovered that some of the braces that actually hold up the lens tower and walkway had developed weak spots, which will have to be repaired. This means that the museum/lighthouse will have to raise $175,000 for repairs and painting.
Incidentally, one of the fund raising projects is a wonderful southern recipe book called Lighthouse Secrets that is sold all over St. Augustine. It may be included in our extensive book collection at Lighthouse Depot very soon.
For anyone interested in making a donation to the lighthouse or becoming a member, can call or write:
St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum,
81 Lighthouse Dr., St., Augustine, FL 32084
Overall, if I were rating Lighthouse/museum organizations, I would have to give the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum a Five Star rating, not only for its staff, facilities, and programs, but also because their new and dynamic archaeological project has already produced remarkable results-literally, in their own front yard.
This story appeared in the
April 2000 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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