When it comes to lighthouses, lots of folks have lots of questions:
- Do they really need these things anymore?
- Does it still work?
- What time does the light come on?
The answer to all three is a resounding “yes”!
You see, navigational lights along our nation’s coastlines are just as important for ship captains and mariners as runway and airport lights are for airline pilots. Just imagine telling airline pilots that they don’t need those runway lights because they have all of those instruments in their cockpits. The truth is, we still use our eyes more than any other of our five senses. Ship captains train for a very long time to be able to navigate a vessel in and around dangerous inlets and waterways and rely on coastal lights to tell them the same thing that their instruments are telling them. Just imagine if their instruments stopped working?
So does it still work? Yes! The St. Augustine Lighthouse still functions as a private aid to navigation for the U.S. Coast Guard and is the navigational beacon for St. Augustine, Florida. It really is simply a reference point along the coast telling ships where they are. Beginning in 1789, the U.S. Lighthouse Service eventually built one large navigational beacon (lighthouse), every sixty miles, on every coast of America. The purpose is so that ships can stay well offshore in deep water where they know they are safe, and every sixty miles there is a light telling them their exact position along the coast. Smaller buoys and lights are used to mark inlets and channels. The focal plane of the light needs to be approximately 160 feet above sea level so that the light is visible many miles out to sea. In the southeast United States where the land is very low and flat, many tall towers had to be built to get the light to this level as opposed to a location that has a 130 foot bluff. In that location you would only need a 30 foot tall lighthouse to reach 160 feet like the lighthouse at Split Rock, Minnesota on Lake Superior for example. Some lighthouses can have a focal plane of closer to 200 feet above sea level, like Cape Hatteras, North Carolina and Heceta Head, Oregon.
Each light has different characteristics so you tell which one you are seeing. The “daymark” is simply a physical description of the lighthouse structure from the sea. But many of the tall towers looked the same and were thus assigned a special mark or fancy paint job so you can identify them more easily. Our daymark is black and white spiral stripes with a red lantern on top. At night, each light has a different flash pattern, or “nightmark”, so you can easily identify them after dark. The St. Augustine Lighthouse has a “30-second fixed flash.” This means that the light is visible all of the time at night, and it also flashes every thirty seconds. No other lighthouse has this “nightmark.” Each light’s distinguishing characteristics are published for ship captains in the U.S. Coast Guard’s Aids to Navigation (ATON) guide as well as in books and computer programs.
Even though we still have keepers here at the Lighthouse, our Lighthouse is automated. An electric motor turns our first-order Fresnel lens to create the flash every 30 seconds while a photo cell on the west side of the tower turns the light on when the sun sets and off after the sun rises. We keepers ensure that the automated systems are working and the original lens rotation mechanism is well oiled and maintained.
P.S. Our Lighthouse even changes its own lightbulb! More on that in another entry.
Post contributed by Rick Cain, Director of Museum Services Division
An email made its way across staff computers today bringing to our attention a new post on the Lighthouse History blog. Its a summary of the Instructions to Light-Keepers, a formal set of guidelines set by the U.S. government’s Light-House Board for Lighthouse Keepers across the country. Its a great read so I thought I’d bring it to folks attention on our own blog.
Some highlights from Lighthouse History:
The 1881 Instructions began, “The Keeper is responsible for the care and management of the light, and for the station in general. He must enforce a careful attention to duty on the part of his assistants; and the assistants are strictly enjoined to render prompt obedience to his lawful orders.” Absences had to be communicated to those left in charge and reported to the inspector. “Light-keepers may leave their stations to attend divine worship on Sundays, to procure needful supplies, and on important public occasions.”
“Watches must be kept at all stations where there is an assistant. The keeper on watch must remain in the watch room and give continuous attention to the light while he is on duty. When there is no assistant, the keeper must visit the light at least twice during the night between 8 p.m. and sunrise; and on stormy nights the light must be constantly looked after.”
The original St. Augustine Lighthouse was built of coquina around the 1730s, and collapsed into the sea just three years after the present-day tower was completed in 1874. It was here that Minorcan resident Maria Andreu served as Lighthouse Keeper after her husband, the former Keeper, died in 1859.
There was a great article in the St. Augustine Record today, that also ran in Jacksonville’s Florida Times-Union, about the first woman to serve as a Lighthouse Keeper in the U.S. And it happened right here, another first for America’s first successful, continuously operating port city. Not surprisingly given St. Augustine’s diverse heritage, this pioneer was not only the first woman but the first Hispanic woman to serve in this post, and is also considered the first Hispanic woman to serve in the U.S. Coast Guard (though at the time, the agency managing Lighthouses was known as the U.S. Lighthouse Service).
From the St. Augustine Record:
Maria Mestre de los Dolores Andreu stands out both in the annals of the U.S. Coast Guard and the federal government.
In 1859 she assumed the watch as the lighthouse keeper at St. Augustine Lighthouse after her husband, Juan, died. Maria Andreu thus became not only the first Hispanic-American woman to serve in the Coast Guard but also the first to command a federal shore installation, say officials.
Her appointment came after her husband died on the job. According to a report in the St. Augustine Examiner on Dec. 10, 1859, “Monday last … (Joseph Andreu) was engaged in white washing the tower of the Light House” when the scaffolding gave way and he fell 60 feet. He died almost instantly.
Its a really great article, one of the best I’ve seen on the Lighthouse, so go read the entire thing here.
Before and after photographs of the tower, after an outbreak of mold was cleaned in March 2013.
Historic preservation and the maintenance of historic structures is a never-ending challenge. Our team recently made a great step forward in the ongoing caretaking of the Lighthouse. Improper maintenance back in the 1970’s destroyed the surface of the brick on our keeper’s house, presenting us with a special problem today. Mold grows on the side of our tower (especially on the north side, like moss on trees) and it must be regularly cleaned. Previously, we used scaffolding or harnesses to do so, a process both expensive and dangerous. This year the maintenance team at the Lighthouse put their heads together and developed a special cleaning system, consisting of a pressure washer suspended and controlled from a series of lines running from the ground to the top of the tower. The pressurized spray of bleach and water, controlled like a marionette by our maintenance staff, worked great, and the new tower looks fabulous! Kudos to our Operations team, including Site Supervisor Brenna Ryan and Maintenance staff David Popp, Brian McNamara, and Blake Soulder, and directed by Deputy Director of Operations Rick Cain.
Click below to see some more before/after shots of the tower.
A great blog entry has been making the rounds lately, written by Craig Morrison, the owner of the Execution Rocks Lighthouse in Long Island Sound. In his Diary of a Light Keeper he tells the story of how he was first inspired to seek out, acquire, and manage his own lighthouse. We here at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum are proud that we played a role in his inspiring story:
Sometime back around 2001, I was watching the NPR show on TV about the lighthouse act written by Gale Norton, Secretary of the Department of the Interior with my girlfriend/attorney, Linell. I asked if we could start a nonprofit and get one. She agreed.
I found a course at St. Augustine Lighthouse, Florida, hosted by the US Coast Guard, the National Park Service, the GSA, among many other lighthouse constituents. Linell and I spent a week in classes about bricks and Fresnel lenses and the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for lighthouse restoration. We bought the book in print, which is now available online. We also met a lot of folks that had ownership interests in lighthouses and that were interested in getting one. Some folks just loved lighthouses.
Our Lighthouse here in St. Augustine was chosen as the first to be turned over to a responsible non-profit organization by the Department of Interior, and we organized and ran the training course that Mr. Morrison refers to. So we are proud to be a leader that has helped the cause of Lighthouse preservation not only in our nation’s oldest port but elsewhere across America.
Craig’s story is a great read! Check out the whole thing for yourself here!