Category Archives: Lighthouse History

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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Are you ready to get “Enlightened”?

Presenting Enlightened! A New St. Augustine Lighthouse Educational Program

Have you ever wondered about the history and science behind the St. Augustine Lighthouse? Well, wonder no more! We are going to take you along on an exploration of all the amazing things we do here at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum in our new YouTube series, Enlightened!

Enlightened is a way for us to share more with you — more stories, more history, more preservation, and more of the research we are doing every day to expand our understanding of people who interacted with the waterways around St. Augustine as part of their livelihood.

As the series grows and expands, we hope to add more interviews, viewer Q&As, and other elements that will allow our viewers to interact with the show and get all their burning Lighthouse questions answered.

Episode 1: The Fresnel Lens

For our first episode, we wanted to explore the heart of our Lighthouse (and all lighthouses, for that matter): the Fresnel lens! This magnificent piece is equal parts science and art, built with care and now preserved with care by our Museum staff.

Join us as we go inside the lens room (one of the few places at our Museum that is not accessible to the public) for an up-close look at our first order Fresnel lens.

Make sure you subscribe to our YouTube channel to catch each additional installment of the Fresnel lens episode in the coming weeks.

And don’t forget to follow us on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter for more great content!

Paul Zielinski is Director of Interpretation for the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum. He received his master’s degree in Public History from the University of West Florida and joined the lighthouse family in 2011.

Conservators Puzzle a Concrete Mystery

While waiting for the new conservation building to begin construction, the staff has been cleaning up around the old and new work sites. In the process, Starr found something pretty interesting. She was sweeping up in front of the World War 2 era garage and noticed a number of markings in the concrete.

The markings are all last names and dates they were written in the concrete. So far we can read: Muller, Warren, French and Cox. The Cox may be a Coast Guard designation, however, and not a last name as it shows up in multiple places. The dates are all 1944, with March 15 and March 17 in two different spots. This all leads us to believe that the concrete outside of the garage was poured during the war effort, either to fix or replace what was there before. This also leads us to believe that some things never change and the chance to write your name in wet concrete is too tempting to pass up.

"French" inscription.
“French” inscription.
"Muller" inscription.
“Muller” inscription.
"Warren" inscription.
“Warren” inscription.
Unreadable inscription.
Unreadable inscription.

We had earlier found a similar marking in the concrete in front of the barracks, as well.

Barracks inscription.
Barracks inscription.

The first thing we did with the barracks inscription was to mark the edges so that staff and visitors would avoid walking on it.

Next, Starr made a dam around the markings and poured silicone rubber over the top. Once the rubber cured, she had a mold of the inscription, just in case something happened to the original. 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