Category Archives: Historical Research

Keepers of the Light

Keepers of the Light

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Alphonso Daniels, 2nd Assistant Keeper, 1928 St. Augustine Lighthouse

When you think about lighthouse keepers, what comes to mind? Maybe it is long, lonely nights dutifully keeping the lamps burning for ships unseen. Alternatively, perhaps it is a long day spent painting the lighthouse tower. Lighthouse keeping meant a hard life, especially as we think about it today. Who do you imagine did these tasks?

During the lighthouse boom of the 19th century, jobs requiring a rugged self-reliance would have been male dominated endeavors. While both sexes had worked equally hard on the frontier during the 17th and 18th centuries, the Industrial Revolution cemented for the next 200-years western views of men’s role as the worker and women’s role in the house. The Lighthouse Service was no exception to this rule. Even though entire families worked from dawn until dusk at light stations across the country, males made up the overwhelming majority of government appointed lighthouse keepers, who received pay for the work they performed.

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We’re Still Here: Hurricanes
and St. Augustine

It’s been about a month now since Hurricane Matthew took a swipe at St. Augustine and the rest of Florida’s East Coast before basically tracking along the shoreline up to North Carolina and finally heading out to sea. Low-lying residential areas, especially along the beaches and inland waterways, were hit hard with floodwaters and many downed trees and power lines. Downtown St. Augustine suffered flooding as well.

The Hurricane and the Lighthouse

The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime windowsMuseum, despite our location on Anastasia Island, weathered the storm well. When the U.S. Lighthouse Board picked the location for this Lighthouse to replace the old lighthouse that was threatened by beach erosion, they chose well. No floodwaters reached the Lighthouse or Keepers’ House. The only physical damage, besides several downed trees, were a few shingles missing from the roof of the Keepers’ House and a set of windows blown out of the Lighthouse and later found in a nearby tree. Continue reading

The Lamplighters

Lighthouses conjure up romantic images of windswept shorelines and the intrepid keepers who maintained the light through the night.

However, by the mid-20th century, technology conspired to eliminate the light keepers’ responsibilities. Electric bulbs replaced the glow of oil lanterns; electric motors made the clockwork mechanism that turned the lens obsolete. Photocells, like the kind you find on the tops of streetlights around the country, now turned the light on and off.

And in 1955, with the St. Augustine Lighthouse completely automated, there was no longer a need for nightly visits by the light keepers.

The Lamplighters

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David Swain with his wife Mary posing during his time as keeper at Cape Canaveral Lighthouse

Despite the removal of light keepers, the U.S. Coast Guard still needed people to ensure the lights came on each night and perform routine maintenance. They called these people lamplighters. To fill these positions, the Coast Guard turned to those most familiar with the keeping of lighthouses: former light keepers.

The first lamplighter at the St. Augustine Lighthouse was a familiar face. David Swain had served as first assistant keeper from 1933 to 1944 before moving on to other lighthouses in Florida.

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Immigrant Light Keepers

Sandy Hook
Located in New Jersey, at the mouth of New York Harbor, the Sandy Hook Lighthouse was visible to immigrants on their way to Ellis Island (courtesy of the Library of Congress).

The connection between lighthouses and immigrants to the United States is inescapable. Dotting the coastline, the bright beacons were often the first sight of land for many people hoping to find opportunity and freedom in a new land. For some of these immigrants, their chance at a new life was closer than they may have thought. The ranks of lighthouse keepers saw a steady increase in foreign-born keepers through the 19th century.

Though subject to peaks and valleys, immigration into the United States steadily increased through the 19th century, peaking in the early 1880s. Immigrants in the second half of the 1800s arrived primarily from Europe, with Germany, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Norway leading the way. Some immigrants to the United States in the 19th century found jobs doing the same work they did in the maritime industries of their home countries. Many had experience as sailors, fishermen, and harbor pilots. Continue reading

450th Anniversary Shipwreck Survey: What Comes Next?

As we begin to move into our 2016 field season, we are excited to introduce the results of the 450th Anniversary Shipwreck Survey, that the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP) carried out over the 2015 field season. The “450th Anniversary Shipwreck Survey” was a project carried out as part of LAMP’s multi-year First Coast Maritime Archaeology Project, which has been ongoing since 2007. The 450th Anniversary Shipwreck Survey, named in honor of St. Augustine’s 450th anniversary which occurred in 2015, was funded by a State of Florida, Division of Historical Resources Small Matching Grant (No. S1604).

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On August 27, 2015, the field work phase of the 450th Anniversary Shipwreck Survey came to a successful end. Over the course of the project, 140 hours and 43 minutes of dive time was logged over 161 dives. During this time, 353 probe tests were completed over the 5 most promising magnetic targets, where multiple positive returns were encountered.

Of the five targets, one was dismissed as unlikely to represent a shipwreck due to inconclusive results with the probe, one was dismissed because of the presence of modern material, one was confirmed as a previously identified Iron Box Site,  which had not been witnessed since 1999, and one represents the potentially significant Nine Foot Under Site, although its location under nine to ten feet of sand means it will be some time before archaeologists can investigate this particular site further.

RV Roper

2016: New Discoveries To Be Made

The fifth and final target investigated during the 450th Anniversary Shipwreck Survey may yet turn out to be the most significant of them all, and it is this target that we will return to this Friday, July 1st, as we begin our 2016 field season.

Over the past year, we have spent countless hours preparing for the continuation of research at this particular target, preparing the research report for this project, processing more magnetic data, performing seasonal maintenance on our dive equipment and research vessel, and we are finally ready to get back in the water and see what this exciting new target holds.

Archaeologist Olivia McDaniel first joined the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum team in 2012 as a student at LAMP’s Underwater Archaeology Field School. She officially joined the lighthouse family as an archaeologist in July, 2014, after completing her bachelor’s degree at the University of Idaho. 

Our first divers splash on Friday, July 1. Be sure to check back towards the end of our field season to see what comes of the fifth and final target investigated during the 450th Anniversary Shipwreck Survey. Until then, we wish you all fair winds and following seas!

Archaeologist Olivia McDaniel first joined the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum team in 2012 as a student at LAMP’s Underwater Archaeology Field School. She officially joined the lighthouse family as an archaeologist in July, 2014, after completing her bachelor’s degree at the University of Idaho.