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, 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.
Atop 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.
This 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.
As 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.
ABOUT THE ST. AUGUSTINE LIGHTHOUSE & 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 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.