The best word to describe the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse is UNIQUE! Its location, (past and present), its design and construction, and the fact that it was taken apart and moved more than a mile in the 1890’s make this lighthouse one of a kind.
Cape Canaveral is one of the earliest named geographical features on the East Coast of the United States, first appearing on mariners charts as early as 1564. A sandy shoal extends several miles out to sea, and a lighthouse was requested in 1822. The first lighthouse, a 65 foot tower, was built in 1848. It soon proved inadequate, and by the late 1850’s plans were made for a replacement.
Construction was delayed until after the Civil War. The new tower, 145 feet high, was first lit on May 10, 1868. It was originally painted all white, but was changed to its present color scheme of black and white alternating stripes in 1873.
The Cape Canaveral Lighthouse has many unusual design features. Cape Canaveral is the only lighthouse in Florida built of cast iron plates with a brick lining. It was designed with living quarters for the assistant keepers inside the tower. The first four floors included bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room. For privacy, there were two outside entrances so that keepers could enter the tower without walking through the living areas. Also, there is a steel security door in the central stairway below the watchroom. When it is bolted from the topside, it’s impossible for anyone to force their way to the upper floors.
Living quarters inside a cast iron lighthouse in Florida proved to be a bad idea, and the assistant keepers had to build their own shelters outside the tower. In 1876, the lighthouse board appropriated $12,000 for new permanent structures.
Although unsuitable for living quarters, the cast iron plate construction proved to be visionary. In 1886, erosion brought the sea dangerously close to the base of the tower. A decision was made to move the tower more than a mile inland. In 1892, the cast iron plates were unbolted, the brick lining removed, and the pieces were put on a rail cart and pulled by mules to the new site. The first order fresnel lens was installed and the light was relit on July 25, 1894.
The shore erosion never made it to the first site, and the original base can still be seen approximately 400 feet from the ocean. Across the street from the original base is a commercial missile launch site. Talk about a contrast between old and new!
In the early 1950’s, the few local residents were moved to make way for the future location of America’s space program. Early rockets were launched close to the lighthouse and viewing stands were often set up in the open area near the lighthouse. The lighthouse was manned until 1967 when the last keeper left and all of the dwellings were destroyed. The only original building left on the grounds is the brick oil house, minus its roof.
The original first order fresnel lens from the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse was removed in 1993 because vibrations from missile launches and old glazing caused several of the pieces to fall out. It was replaced by a DCB-224 marine beacons. The beautiful first order fresnel lens is now part of the outstanding exhibit at the Ponce De Leon Inlet Lighthouse near Daytona Beach.
The Cape Canaveral Lighthouse is still an active aid to navigation and is maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard. It stands in one of the most secure military areas in the world - the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the Kennedy Space Center. The lighthouse is not open to the public, but one KSC tour bus does pass by and pictures can be taken through the window.
Occasionally, the Florida Lighthouse Association (FLA) receives special permission to hold its quarterly meetings at the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse. Tours of the tower, the original base and other nearby related facilities are held as part of the meeting. The FLA can be contacted at 904-761-1821 or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
If you have the opportunity to visit this lighthouse (and/or the first order fresnel lens) you will readily see why UNIQUE really doesn’t do it justice. Hopefully, the lighthouse will be more accessible in the future and more lighthouse enthusiasts will have the opportunity to visit this marvelous structure.
This story appeared in the
October 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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