Lighthouse Tower and Fresnel Lens Celebrate 140 Years on Oct. 15th

Special programs and restoration work on the lighthouse’s first order Fresnel lens will mark the 140th anniversary of the brick tower’s first lighting on Oct. 15, 1874.

St Augustine Lighthouse and Museum Grounds2ST. AUGUSTINE, FLA. – On the evening of Oct. 15, 1874, Head Keeper William Russell lit the 370 prism, first order Fresnel lens in St. Augustine’s new lighthouse for the first time. In the 140 years since, the lens and its 165 ft. tall tower have presided over many changing tides in the oldest city. To celebrate this milestone anniversary, the lighthouse will offer a special presentation about the science behind the light at 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 15th. These programs will also highlight the lens restoration work currently under way at the museum.

“Although our history goes all the way back to the first Spanish watchtowers in the 1500s, this anniversary is still very special to us,” said Executive Director Kathy A. Fleming. “The last 140 years have seen several important chapters in the light station’s history, through wars, technological advances, the Junior Service League’s incredible restoration project and our transition into a maritime museum and archaeological research center.”

The familiar black and white barber pole stripes of the current brick lighthouse tower became part of St. Augustine’s skyline after it replaced a coquina tower built in 1737. The coquina structure, which officially became Florida’s first lighthouse on April 5, 1824, fell into the ocean in 1880, during Head Keeper William Harn’s tenure at the light station.

1st Order Fresnel LensAtop the tower, the nine-foot-tall Fresnel lens is a mix of artwork and science. Handmade in France, the lens contains three bullseye panels that channel light into three separate beams, each shining over 20 miles across sea and land. The beams swing over St. Augustine in 30 second intervals, creating the light station’s own unique light pattern known as the “night mark” just as the black and white stripes with a red cap are known as the tower’s unique “day mark.”

A project to restore the 140 year-old lens is currently under way. Lampist Joe Cocking (U.S. Coast Guard, Ret.), who originally repaired the lens after several prisms were shot out by a vandal in 1986, is part of the team working to maintain the delicate lens. Years of Florida heat as well as the wear and tear from its constant rotation have eroded some of the bonds between each of the 370 individual prisms. The lens itself as well as the gears and motor needed to keep it rotating will be cleaned and repaired over the next few weeks.

Lighthouse LensThis project has been financed in part with historic preservation grant assistance provided by the Bureau of Historic Preservation, Division of Historical Resources, Florida Department of State, assisted by the Florida Historical Commission.

Since 2002, the tower has been operated as a private aid-to-navigation by the museum’s nonprofit foundation. The museum’s services and programs have grown to serve local residents as well as visitors. Just this year, funds were raised to provide more than 80 scholarships for underserved St. Johns County students to attend the museum’s annual summer camp. Many of these students are either homeless or financially unable to attend camp, but through the museum’s programming they are able to have a fun, memorable summer experience learning more about the sea culture and history of St. Augustine.

Climbing the Tower at CampAs the only Smithsonian Affiliate museum in St. Augustine, the lighthouse also hosts programs throughout the year to bring nationally renowned scholars to St. Augustine, including a recent appearance by Ed Bearss, Chief Historian Emeritus for the National Park Service. These programs, combined with exhibits highlighting the maritime culture and history of St. Augustine, as well as professional archaeology and conservation programs, provide a rich and unique cultural resource serving Northeast Florida.

Visitors and residents interested in celebrating the lighthouse’s 140th anniversary can join Director of Museum Conservation, Kathleen McCormick, for a special presentation at 11:30 a.m. or 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 15th. This presentation will be included with general admission, which is $9.95 for adults and $7.95 for children and seniors. Museum members and St. Johns County Resident Pass holders can receive free admission year round.



A pivotal navigation tool and unique landmark of St. Augustine for over 140 years, the St. Augustine Light Station is host to centuries of history in the Nation’s Oldest PortSM. Through interactive exhibits, guided tours and maritime research, the 501(c)3 non-profit St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum is on a mission to preserve, present and keep alive the story of the Nation’s Oldest Port SM as symbolized by our working lighthouse. We are the parent organization to the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP) and an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.  

History of the Harn Family at the
St. Augustine Lighthouse

Who were the Harns?

In our new interactive exhibit, At Home with the Harns, you can experience life as it was for Head Keeper William Harn and his family. Harn served at the St. Augustine Light Station from 1875-1889 where he and his family were the first residents of the Victorian Keepers’ House.

But who were the Harns? How did they come to be in St. Augustine?

William & Kate’s Marriage

St. Augustine Lighthouse Keeper, Brevet Major William Harn of Philadelphia, enlisted in the United States Army in 1854 at the age of 19.

Some years later, as a private, he was sent to Fort Moultrie, S.C., where he met the daughter of Ordnance Sergeant James Skillen.  Her name was Kate.

Harn was transferred to Fort Sumter, S.C., where he was when the Confederate Bombardment occurred and the Civil War began.   He and Kate were married in Rome, New York, at the Rome Arsenal on June 2, 1863.  He was 28 and she was 19.

Harn and the Battle of Gettysburg

3rd NY BatteryAfter a 10 day furlough for this “very important personal business,” on June 5th he marched with the 3rd NY Independent Battery, as part of the VI Corps toward Gettysburg, PA.  He arrived there on the 2nd day of the battle bringing 119 men and six 10 pounder parrot rifles.  He had held command of the Battery for less than a month, having been promoted in June.

Harn’s team saw action however, only after the battle, as the Confederates began to retreat.  A few days later Harn’s battery engaged Major General Jeb Stuart’s Calvary at Funkstown, Maryland.  Stuart’s cavalry-men were determined to protect the retreat of Robert E Lee’s Army into Virginia after the loss at Gettysburg.  The day long battle saw 479 casualties.  Captain Harn then ferried his guns across the Potomac River and participated at the battle of Rappahannock Station, VA where Lee’s army faced a humiliating loss with over 1600 captured.

Harn falls ill, faces Civil War’s most difficult battles

In May of 1864 after contracting malarial fever and taking sick leave the year before, Harn was at the Battle of Spotsylvania where some 30,000 casualties occurred.  The death of Major General James Sedgwick under whom Harn served in the VI Corps, is one of the most notable of the conflict, as he was killed by a sharpshooter while chiding his men to stop dodging bullets because the Confederates “couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” During this conflict some of the most difficult hand to hand combat of the war occurred.

Harn’s battery participated in the trench warfare at Cold Harbor under brutal conditions. The next day after the battle, Harn along with the VI Corps left in route to Petersburg, VA.  The series of battles around Petersburg lagged from June 9, 1864 – March 25, 1865.  Harn was promoted to Brevet (an honorary title given for bravery) Major in the 3rd NY Independent Battery on August 1, 1864 during the Petersburg campaign.

The final throes of battle

On August 2nd, Harn left Fort Urmstron at Petersburg and participated in the pursuit of Lee’s Army.  On April 6th, 1865 he was in the Battle of Saylor’s Creek, VA, one of the last skirmishes of the war. Here nearly on fourth of the retreating Confederate Army was cut off by portion of the II Corps and the VI Corps (Harn’s).  Two confederate divisions led by MGEN Custis Lee and Joseph B. Kershaw, under the command of Lt. Gen Richard B. Ewell fought the VI corps along the creek.  Harn’s VI Corps attacked after an artillery bombardment.  The Confederates counter attacked but were driven back at the last. Soon afterwards the Union cavalry cut through the right of the Confederate lines. Most Confederates surrendered including nine Generals Ewell and Kershaw included.

Harn was at the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House, just as he had been at Fort Sumter when the war began, making him one of the very few solders to see both.  He would now have time for a personal life, although he had contracted tuberculosis at some point and remained sick throughout the rest of his life to some degree.

Starting a new life Post-Civil War

Brevet Major William Harn was 5 feet 5 inches tall with grey eyes and brown hair. In August of 1865 he and his wife moved to Charleston, S.C. where he lived as a merchant until September of 1869.  He served as a lighthouse keeper in Charleston from October 1871-75 and was transferred to be the principle keeper at St. Augustine Lighthouse on Anastasia Island, a post he held until his death of consumption on May 31, 1889.

The Harns’ first daughter, Ruby Isabel, was born November 10th in Rome, N.Y. The second daughter, Mollie E., was born in 1867 in Charleston. Ida Birden Harn was born March 16, 1873, also in Charleston. The Harns’ fourth daughter was named after her mother, Kate. She was probably born in St. Augustine around 1878.  Grace Edna Harn was born March 4, 1882, at the Keeper’s House in St. Augustine. (Source Jan Reed, handwritten letter to the Pension Board, 2011.)

Harn was well paid as a lighthouse keeper’s with a salary of $720 per year.  The labor value of that commodity today is about $102,000.00 (source), though its actual purchasing power may be much less than that, and its economic power much higher.

It is safe to say that the Harns were a firmly middle class family with some income given that the Government also provided housing.  After William’s death, Kate became second assistant keeper for a time with a salary of $400 a year.  She did not hold this position long, and moved back to Maine shortly thereafter.

The Keepers’ House during William & Kate’s Time

Because the Keeper’s House was burned in 1970 and then restored by the Junior Service League over 15 years, we have no documentary evidence of the interiors.  We know from the United States Lighthouse Keepers Manuals that wallpaper in keepers’ dwellings was not against regulation until the very end of the 19th century/beginning of the 20th century. And we know that Victorian lighthouse keepers were of higher social status than their WWII counterparts.

After Harn’s death we know that the entire house was re-plastered by the Federal Government, and never papered again.  The patterns and carpets and objects in the house you will see are not original, but reflect the style prevalent in Maine and Philadelphia and New York at the time when William and Kate lived there. We assume they would have brought some of this taste with them.

The home also displays the designs of Charles Eastlake so prevalent across America in 1875.  All the papers and prints are document patterns to this time period.  Once the home is worn a bit and looks less new it will appear more authentic.

Imagine it as Kate and William lived in it with five of their six daughters in residence.  In the last year of his life it is likely that he would have relied on others around him more and more.  It must have been interesting to live just on the other side of the wall from the Lopez family who were ardent Confederates, but the Harn’s were known for their hospitality.

The Harn Legacy

Harn’s great, great grandchildren still act as museum volunteers today. In fact Dave Reed is in the exhibition is playing the part of his two times great grandfather.  Dave and Jan Reed’s son, Col. Karl Reed, USA. is stationed in Maine and like his three-times great grandfather has also been won awards for valor.  In the Colonel’s case this take the form of a Bronze Star.  Col Reed currently works supporting vets with traumatic brain injuries.

- Kathy A. Fleming
Executive Director, St. Augustine Lighthouse 

Karl Reed and Bev(Right) Col. Karl Reed with volunteer Bev Henry
at the grand opening of the
“At Home with the Harns” exhibit.

A Longer Life for your Family Treasures

With proper care, family treasures can be enjoyed for generations.
With proper care, family treasures can be enjoyed for generations.

”Don’t Touch!” is a familiar museum mantra. Art and antiques are roped off or sealed into glass cases and visitors are expected to maintain a respectful distance. This is certainly important for delicate art, fragile textiles and rare treasures, but are we really getting a sense of the object and the people who used it?

An antique automobile can be as beautiful as any sculpture but only the sight, sound and smell of a car in motion can convey its full story. The whistle of a toy train or the cuddly feel of a teddy bear can put us in the shoes of the child who loved it. Collectors enjoy operating vintage bicycles and machinery and have become experts on the sustainable use of their own favorite “toys.”

Many museums advocate responsible handling of selected objects in their collections to bring to their audiences not just the sight, but also the sound and feel of the past. Each night the St. Augustine Lighthouse reminds us that our story is one of an ancient maritime port. Its light shines a welcome to travelers as it did when it was first lit 140 years ago on October 15, 1874. The striped tower invites all to climb in the footsteps of past keepers.   A photo could never convey the beauty of the beam at night or the feeling of ascending the great spiral staircase to be greeted by an unequalled view of the city and the ocean. Imagine the ancient city’s night sky without its iconic light or a visit to the Lightner Museum without a concert played on its spectacular music machine collection.

What about your family treasures? Which should be protected as delicate objects and which can be put to careful use? Responsible handling and maintenance of tools, vintage clothing and household objects can give them a long life and give you a deeper sense of connection with the people who used them. Coffee prepared in your grandmother’s grinder somehow tastes better and old records played on a Victrola can give you a better sense of your great-grandfather’s life and surroundings than any digital reproduction, but these treasures must be used and handled with care.

Phonographs, watches and other mechanical objects need to be properly cleaned and lubricated to prevent wear and fine china and silver must never go into a dishwasher or microwave. Rinse salt from cars and bicycles after each ride. Proper cleaning after use and careful storage are key, but each object has its own needs. Fortunately, there are many resources available to help you decide which of your treasures can or should be put to use, and how to use them safely.

For information on caring for your personal collections:

Click on the links below for tips from museum  professionals:

The Henry Ford Museum shares a comprehensive guide to caring for your personal collections, arranged by type and material:

The Library of Congress also has excellent advice on caring for family treasures and personal :

Kathleen McCormick has almost two decades of experience in museum conservation. She is currently the Director of Museum Conservation at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum.

This article was originally published in the St. Augustine Record.


Pedro Menéndez: Coming of Age and First Sea Action

Click here to read the first installation of this series on Pedro Menéndez de Avilés.

menende1_smWhen writing about an historical character, it is important to discuss the sources one uses. When writing about Juan Ponce de León’s 1513 voyage of discovery to Florida, the Spanish historian Antonio de Herrera was of critical importance since his writings about the 1513 voyage were the only ones known to have been written using primary source documentation kept by Ponce de León and his pilots during that voyage. In the case of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, who founded St. Augustine in 1565, there are extensive documents and letters kept in Spanish archives that deal directly with his Enterprise of Florida but his early life is a little more obscure.

We are fortunate the accomplishments of Pedro Menéndez were of such note that a number of writers documented his life and deeds in the 16th century when his accomplishments were recent. His childhood is discussed by two writers, Bartolomé Barrientos, a professor of Latin at the University of Salamanca, who wrote a biography of Menéndez in 1568; and a “Memorial” of Menéndez written by Solís de Merás, his brother-in-law and companion in the Enterprise of Florida, which ends abruptly in 1567.

These two accounts both closely describe some of the defining events in Pedro Menéndez’ childhood. Pedro Menéndez was born into a large family of 20 brothers and sisters. We are told by Barrientos that as a young boy Menéndez was usually one of the chosen leaders in neighborhood games and quarrels. His father died when he was young and the family estate was divided equally amongst all 20 so that none were left wealthy. His mother remarried and when the 8-year-old Pedro Menéndez was sent to be raised by foster parents, he ran away to the city of Valladolid in northern Spain. He was there for six months until fetched home and engaged to Ana María de Solís who was 10 years old at the time. It was hoped the engagement would keep him from wandering off again.

Solís de Merás tells us Menéndez applied himself to being a soldier on land and sea with his brothers and once on that path never deviated from it. He learned the way of the sea with his brothers including his elder brother Álvaro Sánchez de Avilés on whom he would continue to depend for support in sea ventures up to the time of the Enterprise of Florida. After learning the “ropes” from his brothers (the term originates with deckhands learning how to handle the ropes of a ship), Barrientos wrote, the still-young Menéndez became the captain of a privateering venture in a small vessel, with about 20 men under his command. While at sea they ran into a larger and more heavily armed French corsair. This was during a time of war between France and Spain though French corsairs were never really deterred during times of peace. This French and Spanish conflict provided the political backdrop to Pedro Menéndez’ entire life and career.


 Map of northern Spain showing the province of Galicia on the north west corner of Spain and Menéndez’ natal province of Asturias on the north coast on the Bay of Biscay.

Outgunned by the larger French corsair, Menéndez’ men were prepared to surrender but were rallied by their captain. Even though they were taking heavy cannon fire they never struck their flag and it was said when the French saw the leadership exhibited by Menéndez they chose not to attempt to board and capture his vessel. Menéndez got the ship safely back to port in Galicia.

We do not know how many men Menéndez lost or if he was himself injured though this is likely given the nature of artillery and the quantities of wooden splinters sent flying about ship during a cannonade at sea. It’s also likely his privateering venture lost money unless it made captures previous to its engagement with the French corsair, which were not mentioned by our Spanish writers. The valor exhibited by Pedro Menéndez in this first documented action was a foreshadowing of the competence, bravery and determination that would make the first successful, permanent Spanish settlement of Florida possible.

The Birth of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and Franco-Spanish Relations

menende1_smAs we approach 2015, the 450th anniversary of the founding of our city, many members of the public are becoming interested in knowing more about the people and events that culminated in the founding of St. Augustine, the nation’s oldest port. Below is the first in a series of posts that will share some of our fascinating history for all to enjoy.


In the year 1519 Juan Ponce de León’s eldest daughter Juana was married to Garcia Troche on the island of Puerto Rico. Ponce was taking care of all of his political and familial obligations so that he could finally return to Florida and establish a permanent settlement that would effectively bring the new territory into the Spanish realm.  It was not to be. Ponce de León’s failed attempt would cost him his life and the task of successfully founding a settlement in Florida would fall to another born that same year. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in the northern port city of Avilés a child was born into a family of minor nobility. The child, a boy, was christened with the name Pedro Menéndez. Like the name of Juan Ponce de León, that of Pedro Menéndez would forever be associated with Florida.

Map of the north coast of Spain showing the location of the city of Avilés, the birthplace of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés.
Map of the north coast of Spain showing the location of the city of Avilés, the birthplace of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés.

In 1521, the year Ponce de León made his attempt to settle Florida, France and Spain went to war. This war set the tone of Franco-Spanish relations for decades to come and served as the backdrop to Pedro Menéndez’s child hood and coming of age. The war began in the north and clashes occurred on the Bay of Biscay and in the Pyrenees Mountains which separate Spain and France. One of the consequences of this war was the onslaught of French privateers, known as corsarios, which for the first time began a serious assault on the wealthy Spanish shipping from the Indies. This began in 1523 with the capture of three Spanish ships carrying Mexican Aztec treasure from Hernán Cortéz to the court of Charles V.

These very rich prizes gave the French a taste for Spanish gold and corsairs appeared in great numbers off the coasts of the Azores, the Canaries, and San Lúcar de la Barrameda, the entrance to the Guadalquivir River and the port of Seville. In response to this, in 1526 the Spanish prohibited the sailing of individual vessels to and from the Indies and organized them into an annual convoy system that would remain a Spanish practice for centuries. This resulted in a decrease of Spanish losses and also led to the capture of numerous French corsairs by the Spanish defenders of the fleet known as “la guarda de flotas”. With this change in tactics, French corsairs expanded their horizons to the Indies themselves where they assaulted vessels engaged in the inter-island trade and sacked Spanish coastal settlements.

When Pedro Menéndez was ten years old in 1529, the Spanish Emperor Charles V gave permission to a number of northern ports to engage in trade with the Indies. Among these was Avilés in Asturias. These northerners, or norteños, had a long established reputation for maritime excellence in both the shipbuilding trade and in warfare. The iron and timber resources of northern Spain and its coast line on the Bay of Biscay made shipbuilding a natural industry. Warfare between Spain and its neighbors and the consequent maritime losses contributed to the shipbuilding industry by providing a continuing need for new shipping.

In times of war the Spanish crown gave letters-of-marque to captains who would outfit and arm ships at their own cost, often in share holding companies, to make war on the enemies of Spain and which operated independently of la guarda de flotas.  Spanish privateers who went after French corsarios were called contra corsarios, and when it came to warfare the norteños had a fearsome reputation as privateers on the Bay of Biscay and elsewhere.  Norteños are very well represented among mariners who undertook to protect Spain’s trade. These included such men as Juanot de Villaviciosa, Domingo de Villaviciosa, Bartolomé Carreño, and Álvaro Sánchez de Avilés, the elder brother of Pedro Menéndez from whom Menéndez would learn much about seamanship and fighting. This was the world in which Pedro Menéndez de Avilés grew and came of age and which shaped his historical trajectory.