Category Archives: Lighthouse History

Keeper William Russell: From Old Spanish Watchtower to St. Augustine Lighthouse

By Jay Smith

Where’s the elevator in this thing?” A young woman who couldn’t be more than 30 asks me as I stand at the top of the tower welcoming her to the observation gallery.  You might be amazed at how often that question gets raised during a normal day.  Granted, I have gained a new appreciation for Paul Pelz for having the forethought to add landings to his design for our Lighthouse! What we often forget is that the men and women of the United States Lighthouse Establishment climbed those stairs often more than once a day usually carrying oil or perhaps something heavier and did so without a second thought!

The Old Spanish Watchtower, which became the first St. Augustine Lighthouse.

     As we begin this series on lighthouse keepers and their families, we must consider how life at the light station in St. Augustine differed from life at other stations.  The keepers and their families functioned within the larger community.  They were born, married, and died here, and they left their imprint within the larger St. Augustine community.  Most light stations were too remote for such interaction but early on, our Lighthouse welcomed visitors and residents alike.   

     The keepers became local celebrities for their time and familiar figures in the city.  Although some of the keepers have retained that position (such as William Harn), others have become obscured by time and history. 

     One of these obscured keepers in our Light Station’s history is also perhaps the most important: William H. Russell.  When Russell began working at the Light Station, there was only the single keeper position.  The Lighthouse complex consisted of the tower and the Keeper’s House with a wall enclosing a courtyard.  Russell started in April 1873 during the construction of the current tower and then resigned in April 1875.  During his term, he oversaw the move from the old tower into the new one and most importantly, the lighting of the new first-order Fresnel lens.  Other than his service at the light station, aspects of William Russell’s life remained unknown,  and that is where I began looking for information. 

Keeper William Russell, far right, stands in front of of the Old Spanish Watchtower with a group of visitors.

     Utilizing online sources and the St. Augustine Historical Society Research Library, I have been able to gain a bit more information about Russell and his family.  Russell was born in 1854 and grew up in Orange Mills, Florida, a community along the St. Johns River near Palatka.  His father, Thomas T. Russell, was born in Beaufort, South Carolina, and moved to Florida in 1816 to take advantage of the uncultivated land that the new frontier of Florida offered to planters and farmers.  This period between the end of the Spanish occupation in Florida and Florida’s statehood sees an enormous flood of planters and farmers into the territory from states to the north.  Florida’s acres of uncultivated, virgin land was supposedly capable of growing anything in abundance including the cotton that by this time had drained nutrients from the soil of plantations to the north of nutrients. 

     According to the 1850 census, Russell held 300 acres of land in St. Johns County and on January 18, 1861, he purchased another 40 acres of land in Putnam County along Dunn’s Lake (today Crescent Lake).  The fact that he paid cash for the lands means that he was a successful planter since cash throughout the antebellum period and into the Civil War was a scarce commodity. 

Keeper William Russell is believed to be pictured in front of the newly built St. Augustine Lighthouse in this image.

     Thomas Russell’s role as a planter and his apparent wealth means that he held a prominent place in the society of northeast Florida.  In 1843, Russell is named as the Receiver of Public Moneys in St. Augustine upon the resignation of John Fontaine.  Such positions placed planters like Russell in the appointments of controlling federal and state assets including cash and land. These positions were almost always political in nature.  The planters, in order to maintain their control over politics, often kept farmers and landowners (from the lower classes) from these types of positions and, in turn, rewarded each other with land grants and financial support to insure their positions would remain intact.  Therefore, we can assume Thomas Russell maintained a prominent place within society and he uses that prominence and becomes the publisher of a newspaper called the News.  In the spring of 1845, he moved to Jacksonville to begin publishing a newspaper for the Whig Party called the Florida Whig.  He remains at the paper for a year and then returns to St. Augustine. 

     What all of this tells us about William Russell, Thomas’s son, is that it points to a number of important elements about William Russell’s life.  First, remember that the St. Augustine of the 1840s is vastly smaller in population than the city of today.  Like other positions with the government (federal or otherwise), the keeper position at St. Augustine was one that most people defined as political in nature.  Thomas Russell probably wielded his influence and got his son, William, appointed as keeper.  The work would have been tough to be sure, but William grew up around farming so he was familiar with hard work and he was only nineteen years old.  However, once the move to the new tower is complete, William resigns his position in 1875 and Francis Philip Fatio Dunham assumes the keeper position at St. Augustine. 

     So what becomes of William Russell following his time as keeper? On October 27, 1879, he marries Rosalia Baya, a member of a prominent Menorcan family in the city.  The priest who performs the ceremony, Father Stephen Langlade, is from La Puy, France, the same city where the Sisters of St. Joseph departed for St. Augustine.  Therefore, we can assume that Bishop Verot, who invited the Sisters to St. Augustine to teach the young people here, also asked Langlade to come as well.  Langlade met with much success in the Mill Creek and Elkton communities among the Menorcan families living outside of St. Augustine’s city limits. 

     Russell returns to serve in the St. Augustine Lighthouse under William Harn in 1880 and gets promoted to First Assistant but resigns again the following year.  He remerges in 1886 as a clerk in the firm of Sabin, Moulton & Company, a local business selling general merchandise at the corner of Bridge and Marine Streets.  Between 1880 and 1885, Rosalia dies and William has three children to raise without her.  Around 1890, William enters into a partnership with John Brannon and opens a clothing store in St. Augustine.  The partnership runs into trouble in 1893 when a New York firm sues the partners for nonpayment on the loan they received.  As you might expect, the partnership dissolves and the inventory in the store is confiscated by Sheriff Perry to pay off the debt. 

In 1886 William Russell was a clerk in the firm of Sabin, Moulton & Company, a local business selling general merchandise at the corner of Bridge and Marine Streets. 

     The final mention of William Russell is an article from The St. Augustine Record on June 14, 1900, that laments the loss of a man “well known in St. Augustine, having been born and reared in this city.” This man is William Russell.  He died in the early morning around 5:30 am in the home of his sister.  The article does indicate that he suffered from ill health for quite some time prior to his death.  Although the article mentions that Russell was buried in the Catholic cemetery, there is a record of his burial in Evergreen Cemetery.  I was not able to locate a headstone for him there. 

     What I find most interesting about William Russell is how connected his family was to the City of St. Augustine.  His father served in several very powerful political positions in the City and Russell received the benefit of that connection.  Like many other children of prominent citizens, William married into another well connected family, the Baya family.  Ironically Russell was well poised for a position of political prominence as a plantation owner with large landholdings, yet he turns his back on that lifestyle and chooses rather to focus on being a merchant and occasionally a lighthouse keeper.  St. Augustine at this time is undergoing some changes itself which William’s life indicates. 

     Previously a frontier town, St. Augustine was becoming a wealthier and more important city.  As the population grew, the City’s trade connections developed.  Where does William Russell and his partner go to borrow funds for their enterprise? They rely upon a New York firm suggesting that St. Augustine’s port maintained very close ties to the trade coming in and out of New York.  St. Augustine was becoming a busier port and capable of sustaining trade in luxury goods like fine clothing and fashion and there were citizens there capable of sustaining a market for these items. 

     As we look at the men and women of the St. Augustine Lighthouse, be aware of the role that these people played not just in the history of the Light Station, but within the history of the city. Most Light Stations were remote and functioned without much interaction with the city or town they served; this was definitely not the case here.  

Ghost Tour Experience: ‘Each floor held new secrets about the history of the Keepers’ House.’

The St. Augustine Lighthouse shown on October 31, 2018 during a Dark of the Moon Ghost Tour. Photo by Jayda Barnes

By Jayda Barnes, Flagler College student

The first thing I noticed about the Dark of the Moon Tour was that it was, indeed, very dark. The chill in the air may have been due to the setting sun or the spookiness of Halloween night. The Museum grounds, usually bright with sunlight, faded into the shadows of the trees which hovered around it. The only true source of light appeared in the beacon of its namesake: The Lighthouse.

After receiving my tickets, I rented an EMF meter to sense the electromagnetic fluctuations caused by any ghosts, mostly because I knew my best friend would glare at me all night if I didn’t.

The occasion of the evening only became more apparent as we stood outside of the Museum gift shop, waiting to be led on our spooky journey. Halloween shirts and costumes popped up sporadically in a few of the more festive guests. Promptly at 7:30 pm, our party was escorted to the base of the tower, where we learned the rules for the evening and split into groups. My group entered the Lighthouse first. We stood at the bottom of the tower and listened to the stories of ghosts seen in the past, especially the mysterious Shadow Figure who has been seen peering over the railing down at guests.

Perhaps the scariest moment of the evening came as we huffed our way up the 219 steps to the top of the Lighthouse. The exercise of it was frightening enough, but on top of that, the entire tower was shrouded in darkness, save for the few lanterns dangling along the way. Silhouetted figures painted on the walls of each landing invoked images of the Shadow Figure we’d just been told about.

Despite the fear and the height, everyone made it to the top and embraced the whipping chill of the wind. All of St. Augustine stretched below, hundreds of tiny lights peppering the ground. It was almost beautiful enough to make me forget the ghost story I was standing on.

Once the heat of the climb wore off and the wind became more chilling than relieving, the group made its way back down to the ground. Our guide led us around to the side of the Lighthouse, where she detailed the haunting tale of one Lightkeeper’s plummet from the original tower.

After catching our breath, we journeyed to the Keepers’ House. Stories of fatal accidents and irritable Lightkeepers filled the darkness. Each floor held new secrets about the history of the Keepers’ House. We ended in the basement, where we were released to explore on our own for the rest of the night.

The basement had the most activity of the evening. One man sat in one of the resident ghost’s favorite chairs. As the guest spoke to the room, EMF meters began lighting up red around his shoulders, indicating some paranormal activity. The more we spoke and scanned the room, the more lights lit up, travelling behind the chairs to the back of the room. Upstairs, we explored an area called the Shadow Room, where the energy of the room intensified as soon as we entered. My friend heard beeping in the corner as we searched the room for signs of ghostly activity.

The tour ended at 9:30 p.m., sending us back into the world to reflect on our supernatural experiences. Even with the Lighthouse looming behind us, we carried the eeriness with us into the festive evening. The tour might have been even spookier because of Halloween, but it was also even more fun because of it. As our guide told us, the Museum is “not a haunted house, just haunted.” And on Halloween, when the spiritual veil is said to be thinnest, it’s always possible the ghosts will make a special appearance, just for you.

Discoveries at the Barracks

The World War II-era United States Coast Guard (USCG) structure on site is currently being restored after serving as office space for many years at the Museum. The structure was constructed after the US entered into World War II. Before December 1941, the US military was in various stages of mobilization that included increasing military personnel, munitions and equipment.

The official telegram that head keeper Daniels received, which initiated a military mobilization plan that officially directed the US Navy to absorb the USCG (note that this occurs in November 1941 before the Pearl Harbor attack).

As war was declared, there was rapid action to train troops and prepare the US for overseas warfare. As the US prepared to enter into multiple war fronts, plans were developed and initiated for home front security. As part of this process, the USCG fell under direction of the US Navy. The Museum’s collections provide a glimpse into some of these rapidly developing events and the role the Lighthouse and Light Station played during the wartime effort. We are fortunate enough to have some of the original Keepers’ records here at the Museum.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, military actions were intensified. Lighthouses along our coastline were immediately designated coastal lookouts serving to monitor boat traffic and identify any German U-boats in a region that would pose as an immediate threat. The US military forces, including the USCG, initiated routine patrol to guard our shorelines, albeit with limited resources. Coastal defense needed additional support and the USCG developed a series of infrastructure series of lookout towers strategically placed along the coastline. Additionally, a beach patrol was established on the coast with a combination of coastguardsmen: on foot with patrol dogs, on horseback and in some areas, in Jeeps. Training centers were established for this new defense effort and local infrastructure further grew to protect our coastlines from saboteurs and to help identify foreign invaders.

At our Lighthouse, the strategy was to construct a coastal lookout dwelling; it was finished and occupied in 1942. The dwelling (aka the Barracks) was built to house at least four coastguardsmen. Their job was to be on duty at the top of the tower 24/7, and report boat traffic (among other things) as part of the coastal defensive system. Unfortunately, there is limited documentation regarding this structure, but some information has been gleaned from past renovation projects as well as some of our original Keepers’ records. A Barracks reroofing project years ago produced a couple of fascinating finds. Among the layers of the former roofing projects, interesting details emerged surrounding construction activity at the Light Station. Original roof material was still present beneath a replacement metal roof. When this metal was removed, examples of original shingles were found! On the reverse side of these shingles was the name and location of the local manufacturer (nearby Palatka).

Shingles with manufacturer’s stamp.

The other amazing find was a section of roofing liner below the wood shingles with a portion of it signed by the individuals believed to have laid the roofing material, as well as the person who completed the electrical work. The fragments of paper are amazingly preserved and one can still clearly read the date of “April 28th 1942” for when the work was completed, and that the laborers were from Daytona Beach (possibly an indication of how busy it was in St. Augustine).

Fragment of paper showing the name and location of the laborers.

By the beginning of May, keeper correspondence suggests the structure is ready for occupation with mentions that the furniture has arrived (including a studio couch, for those who are curious). As staff has conducted searches in correspondence, we have previously been able to note some timeline issues or like most construction projects, a “delay” or “problem” during construction. For example, the coastal dwelling Keeper correspondence from August 1942 indicates the structure and wiring are complete, but additional work is required in order to connect to the main power line. We have also discovered that our first coastguardsmen reporting for lookout duty arrived in July 1942.

Letter from C.D. Daniels confirming arrival and subsequent assignment of coastguardsmen.

A copy of Keeper Daniels’ official report to superiors notes their arrival, and that yet again the dwelling is not quite ready for occupation. When we examine the roster of who arrives, one name is familiar to us: H.D. Defee. He is of interest to us because Defee’s name was previously found etched in concrete by the garage of the same time period. Interestingly, we know the concrete work was completed in 1944 so apparently he had at least a couple stints at the Lighthouse during the war. Restoration projects often reveal history that would not ever be found in any record. This is the case here at the Lighthouse. We suspect that as the restoration project continues, we are sure to find additional surprises!

Contributed by Chief Curator Jason Titcomb, edited by Student Intern Jayda Barnes

Archaeologists + Dating = Success Through Collaboration

The past three months have been very busy for our Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP) archaeologists. They have been analyzing artifacts discovered on the Museum property during last summer’s construction of the new Maritime Archaeology & Education Center, as well as sites through St. Johns and Flagler Counties uncovered during the storms.

Our analysis started by contacting Dr. Lee Newsom, a Professor of Anthropology at Flagler College. Dr. Newsom is an expert in examining preserved plant remains from archaeological and paleontological sites as well as examining faunal remains, or bones! We were looking to determine the types of animals found in the trash pits uncovered during construction of the new Center. Once the bones were handed over, Dr. Newsom and her students at Flagler College went to work on identifying the types of animals in these pits. They came back with incredible data.

Dr. Lee Newsom directs Flagler College students on bone identification.

There are three areas we uncovered and examined: an 1880s trash pit to the north of the northern-most outdoor brick kitchen, a trash pit dating to the 1900s, and a 1930s pit near the Tin Pickle. Many of the bones in all three areas were identified as cow bones – meaning the keepers here had access to various cuts of beef on the island. Other bones included deer, turtle, snapper and turkey. All of these animals could have been caught on or around the Light Station. This knowledge brings to light the foodways of the Lightkeepers.

We also tasked Dr. Newsom and her students with dating our wood samples taken from the November canoe discovery. This canoe had shifted around during the high tides following Hurricane Irma and became quickly exposed as the high tides and storm surge subsided. To further understand the canoe, wood samples were taken by a joint team of Museum Archaeologists  and the Florida Public Archaeology Network of Northeast Florida. Tests of these samples would yield dates and a wood species. Speciation is determined by looking at the wood at a cellular level and identifying grain patterns within the wood. From their microscopic data based on one of two wood samples taken from the canoe, Dr. Newsom and her students determined the canoe to be made of cypress. Dating wood is a slow process, and only requires a tiny sliver of wood to complete. The second of the two wood samples was sent to the University of Georgia’s Center for Applied Isotope Studies. The wood is dated using radiocarbon dating. Radiocarbon dating looks at the amount of Carbon 14 remaining in a decaying piece of floral or faunal remains. As life stops exchanging Carbon 14 with the environment upon death and Carbon 14 decays at a constant rate, the older the piece being sampled, the less Carbon 14 will be present in the wood.

Wood sample taken from canoe for dating and speciation.

The analysis determined that the canoe is 830 years old ± 30 years, from 1950. From today’s date, that translates to a dating of 1000 CE. This is well before the Spanish ever laid foot in Florida. While this does not make our canoe one of the oldest in the state, it is believed to be one of the oldest in Northeast Florida.

LAMP and FPAN archaeologists examine the dugout canoe.

Now that the hardest date to obtain – that of the canoe- was determined, the LAMP team moved on to finding dates for our artifacts! The artifacts discovered on site (pottery, children’s toys, housewares) provided us with dates through historical research based on shape and maker’s marks present on individual objects.

Further research can be done into both the Light Station and the canoe to provide a fuller history of the northeast region of Florida. We appreciate the willingness of Dr. Lee Newsom and her students as well as the Center for Applied Isotope Studies at UGA to aid us in discovering new areas to be explored regarding this wider maritime history.

Contributed by Archaeologist Allyson Ropp, edited by Student Intern Jayda Barnes

During the season of giving, Junior Service League of St. Augustine donated $9k to St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum

Group of JSL members
Donation important now more than ever as WWII Barracks restoration project is delayed and looking for more donors to jumpstart the restoration process this year

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – On December 27th, the outgoing president of the Junior Service League of St. Augustine (JSL), Katey Anderson, presented a check for $9k to the Museum. It is a continuation of a supportive partnership created over thirty-five years ago with the initiation of a “Save the Lighthouse” restoration project. Then, the property was a burned out Keepers’ House and a Lighthouse monitored by an off-site Lightkeeper. Kathy Shetler, Margaret Van Ormer and Lorri Lassiter were JSL members who helped initiate the project to restore the Keepers’ House which cost $1 million. Now they serve on the Museum’s Board of Trustees and have been involved in the Museum’s growth. Lassiter says, “Throughout the years I have watched with amazement and pride as the Museum has grown and evolved…currently restoring the World War II Barracks and having recently built the beautiful new Maritime Archaeology & Education Center which brings the Museum’s programs even closer to the public.”

Prior to this donation, the JSL contributed funds for and received naming rights to an archaeologist’s office within the new Maritime Archaeology & Education Center, completed in September of last year. This most recent donation was specifically given for use by the collections department at the Museum which will foster continued preservation and storytelling of the history and the role the JSL has played in ensuring the preservation of the Lighthouse over the years. Van Ormer adds, “It never occurred to us that we would not be successful in this challenge.”

Group of JSL members
From (L) to (R) in background: ED Kathy Fleming, Lorri Lassiter, Judy Burnett Albright, Theresa Floyd, Margaret Van Ormer, Kathy Shetler. In front: Dr. Holly Sheets.

Since the time of this donation, another restoration project – the WWII Barracks – slated to begin early this year, incurred a setback due to a reordering of a grant awardees list drafted by the state’s Historical Resources Commission. The Museum Executive Director Kathy Fleming doesn’t worry, as she says, “Just as we’ve rallied together before and have a history of doing so, we will do the same again and another compassionate and caring group of people will come forward to bring this project to life”. Longtime volunteer and Trustee Emeritus Judy Albright echoes that sentiment saying, “When you think of our ages, from when we were active until now, we still care enough to be active sustainers, it says volumes. We still love the project we undertook back in the early 80s [restoring the Keepers’ House] and decided to be more active by becoming Trustees [of the Museum]. A great testament to the Museum and why we felt it would be a light for the community then and now!”

The Museum would like to thank Katey for her incredible leadership this past year which helped to make this donation possible, as well as all the ladies past and present who have been instrumental in both organizations in keeping the light on for our community. Without their initial dedication to the cause and the continued determination to sustain the partnership between the two organizations, the Museum staff says its work would be made much more difficult to sustain. They would also like to recognize the people who have been involved with both organizations over the last few years, helping to facilitate and maintain this active partnership: Judy Burnett Albright, Kathy Fleming, Theresa Floyd, Lauren Goedelman, Barb Holland, Lorri Lassiter, Kelcie Lloyd, Holly Sheets, Kathy Shetler, Margaret Van Ormer and Loni Wellman.

The story of the JSL saving the Keepers’ House from destruction and opening as a maritime Museum is on display in the Visitors Center as a permanent exhibition. As part of the Museum, the Visitors Center is open to the visiting public during normal Museum operating hours of 9 AM – 6 PM daily. For more information about the WWII Barracks restoration and how you can help, please contact Michelle Adams at madams@staugustinelighthouse.org.

ABOUT THE ST. AUGUSTINE LIGHTHOUSE & MARITIME MUSEUM:
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 Port®. Through interactive exhibits, guided tours and maritime research, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum is on a mission to discover, preserve, present and keep alive the stories of the Nation’s Oldest Port® 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. (StAugustineLighthouse.org)

ABOUT THE JUNIOR SERVICE LEAGUE OF ST. AUGUSTINE:
The Junior Service League of St. Augustine, Inc. is an organization of women committed to promoting volunteerism, developing the potential of its members for volunteer participation in community affairs and demonstrating the effectiveness of trained volunteers within St. Johns County. The Junior Service League of St. Augustine, Inc. reaches out to women of all races, religions, and national origins who demonstrate an interest in and commitment to volunteerism. The League began in 1935 as a group of dedicated women who came together to address civic, social and cultural needs in the Nation’s Oldest City.