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.  

Minorcan cast net maker, Michael Usina, to be presented Florida Folk Heritage Award in April

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – Michael Usina, St. Augustine native and Minorcan descendent, has been recognized recently by the state as a recipient of a 2019 Florida Folk Heritage Award.

Michael Usina

Usina celebrates his Minorcan heritage by crafting hand-made cast nets using techniques passed down by his ancestors who settled St. Augustine in the 18th century.

Driven by a desire to promote Minorcan folk arts, Usina has shared this tradition in one-on-one apprenticeships, a documentary and at a variety of public events including the Florida Folk Festival.

For the past seven years, he has demonstrated his craft at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum. He has provided Minorcan cast net making demonstrations on the grounds of the Museum for visitors and during summer camps with the Museum’s Education Program.

Tools used by Mike Usina for creating Minorcan cast nets.

“Thanks to Mike for so enthusiastically sharing his stories and skills with campers and visitors over the last 7-plus years,” said Brenda Swann, Director of the Interpretative Division at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum. “Working with him is an honor and a privilege.”

The Folk Heritage Awards are given to outstanding folk artists and advocates who have made longstanding contributions to the folklife and cultural resources of Florida. In the category of Folklife Advocate, the award recipients are James Billie, former chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, and Tina Bucuvalas, Curator of Arts & Historical Resources for the City of Tarpon Springs.

In the category of Folk Artist, the award recipients are Jane Wells Scott, fiddler in Tallahassee, and Michael Usina, Minorcan cast net maker in St. Augustine. Awards will be presented to the recipients in a ceremony at the Word of South Festival in Tallahassee on April 13, 2019.

“Folk artists and advocates help keep important traditions alive so they can be passed down and shared from generation to generation,” said Secretary Ertel. “The Department is honored to recognize these four individuals for their commitment to fostering Florida’s folk arts and cultural heritage.”

Usina has been making cast nets for more than 60 years using the same techniques as his Minorcan ancestors who settled North Florida more than 240 years ago. He learned the skills from his father Julian, who had learned them from his father.

Phil Castillo (left), friend of Mike Usina (center), and volunteer Tim Jackson
on the grounds of the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum during
a Minorcan cast net making demonstration.

The Usinas owned a local filling station where they made nets in their spare time. By the time he was nine years old, Michael had knitted his first four foot Spanish mullet net. As a teen, he made and sold one per week and throughout adulthood, continued to make cast nets to provide for his family, eventually mastering both the Spanish and English varieties.

After retiring from a career as an airplane sheet metal mechanic for the Department of Defense, he focused his efforts on promoting his Minorcan folklife. Since 2012 he has shared net making, fishing and other aspects of maritime culture with youth at the annual summer camp hosted by the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum. He served as a Master Artist in the Folklife Apprenticeship Program in 2015, led independent apprenticeships, produced the documentary The Minorcan History of Hand Made Netmaking and regularly demonstrates at community events including annually at the Florida Folk Festival.

His efforts generated growing interest in folk arts in St. Augustine garnering notice from the Community Foundation of Northeast Florida, who recommended he apply for funding. In partnership with the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum, he secured enough funding to host a folk arts workshop series that included net making as well as Cuban and Greek foodways, palm frond weaving, ship modeling and Greek dancing.   

The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum, a private nonprofit, is open for guests  from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week, with extended hours in the summer and on holidays. For ticket and tour details, go to staugustinelighthouse.org or call 904-829-0745. Stay updated on social media at facebook.com/staugustinelighthouse, Instagram.com/stauglighthouse, and twitter.com/firstlighthouse

January 18-20: Super blood moon and total lunar eclipse

Eclipse 2019: A Super Blood Wolf Moon will appear between January 20 and 21 (Image: GETTY)

Next total lunar eclipse won’t be until May 2021

The total lunar eclipse includes a super Moon where a full moon appears 14 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter than usual!

The full moon can be viewed throughout the weekend of January 18-20, with the lunar eclipse beginning the night of January 20.

Ready to see the FULL MOON from the top of the tower at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum? Dark of the Moon Ghost Tours are on the schedule:

  • 7:30 p.m. Friday, January 18
  • 7:30 p.m. Saturday, January 19
  • 7:30 p.m. Sunday, January 20

Hear history and hauntings of the St. Augustine Lighthouse and climb the tower at night, with a few of the super blood moon.

RSVP HERE

More about the super blood moon total lunar eclipse

From gainesville.com:

The silent celestial cogs of the Earth, moon and sun align this month to treat all of North America to a total lunar eclipse, the first show with this reach since September 2015.

For stargazers in north central Florida, the event begins at 9:36 p.m. Jan. 20 as the first delicate slice is taken out of the moon by the Earth’s shadow. The full eclipse begins at 11:41 p.m. as more of the moon is swallowed.

But the peak of the show is at 12:12 a.m. on Jan. 21, as the moon is fully enveloped in a coppery hue — a result of the sun’s rays reaching around Earth and through its thin atmosphere.

St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum open during government shutdown

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum, a private nonprofit, is open for guests during the government shutdown. Regular hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week. Dark of the Moon Ghost Tours also are available each Friday through Sunday. For ticket and tour details, go to staugustinelighthouse.org or call 904-829-0745.

The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum is not government owned. In 1998 the Museum was separately incorporated as a not-for-profit institution with a mission of maritime history, education and community service.

Climb 219 to the top of the St. Augustine Lighthouse. Guests are shown on the observation deck of the St. Augustine Lighthouse.

In 1980, the Junior Service League of St. Augustine, Inc., who were then a group of only 16 volunteers, began a fifteen-year campaign to restore the Keepers’ House that was destroyed and gutted by a vandal’s fire. The League went on to restore the lighthouse tower, and with assistance from the United States Coast Guard, they performed the first Fresnel Lens restoration in the world.  The lens had been damaged by a vandal’s bullet, and was almost removed, but the entire community stepped in to save this front porch light for the community.  A maritime museum was opened to the public part-time in 1988 run by volunteers.  In spring 1994, the full site was opened to the public full time. 

The Keepers’ House at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum, built in 1886. View multiple exhibits on three levels within the house and basement.

THINGS TO DO

At the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum, climb 219 steps to the top of the 165-foot tower for a breathtaking view of historic downtown St. Augustine, the beaches, and the nation’s oldest port.  Discover St. Augustine’s rich maritime history at the site of Florida’s first lighthouse. Explore exhibits in the restored Keepers’ House about the lives of the Lighthouse keepers and their families, and shipwreck discoveries made off the coast of St. Augustine.

Incredible views of the St. Augustine area and the Atlantic Ocean can be seen from the observation deck of the St. Augustine Lighthouse.

Also on site, a WWII US Coast Guard Barracks, Behind the Scenes Tours, a Maritime Hammock Scavenger Hunt, an archaeology lab, and a View from the Top video (for those who don’t climb the Lighthouse) in the Maritime Education Center. For little ones: A shipyard playground and hands-on activities throughout the exhibits and grounds (children less than 44 inches tall can’t climb the tower but get free admission). Don’t forget to shop in the museum store for unique lighthouse and maritime gifts.

View conservation of shipwreck artifacts in the viewing window of the Archaeological Maritime Education Center at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum.

EXHIBITS

  • Wrecked! The Story of a Revolutionary War Shipwreck
  • At Home with the Harns: A Look Inside the Home of a Keeper Family
  • Legends of the Light: Stories from the Lighthouse’s Past
  • US Coast Guard Barracks from WWII with artwork depicting the US Coast Guard
  • Maritime Education Center ship models and Spanish Watchtower replica
This photo shows the WRECKED! exhibit in the basement of the Keepers’ House where shipwreck artifacts are on view from a 1782 British loyalist shipwreck found in St. Augustine.

OTHER THINGS TO DO

  • Self-Guided St. Augustine Light Station Tour
  • View from the Top video (for those who don’t climb and those under 44 inches)
  • Behind the Scenes tour: on the hour from 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM
  • Keepers’ House
  • Heritage Boatworks: Building on Florida’s Maritime Heritage
  • Northeast Florida Shrimping: Foundation of a Global Enterprise
  • Maritime Hammock Nature Trails & Scavenger Hunt
  • Archaeology Conservation Lab & viewing window 
  • Shipyard Playground
  • Hands-on children’s activities
  • Gift shop with Lighthouse & Maritime items

For more details about the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum, visit staugustinelighthouse.org or call 904-829-0745. Stay updated on social media at facebook.com/staugustinelighthouse, Instagram.com/stauglighthouse, and twitter.com/firstlighthouse

Interactive tablets help visitors learn about shipwrecks in the Keepers’ House.

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)

A model of the first St. Augustine Lighthouse (Spanish Watchtower) is located in the Maritime Education Center, along with ship models, a View from the Top video, and hands-on children’s activities.

About the American Alliance of Museums:

The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), the highest national recognition afforded the nation’s museums. The American Alliance of Museums has been bringing museums together since 1906, helping to develop standards and best practices, gathering and sharing knowledge, and providing advocacy on issues of concern to the entire museum community. As the ultimate mark of distinction in the museum field, accreditation signifies excellence and credibility. Accreditation helps to ensure the integrity and accessibility of museum collections,  and reinforces the education and public service roles of museums and promote good governance practices and ethical behavior. Representing more than 35,000 individual museum professionals and volunteers, institutions, and corporate partners serving the museum field, the Alliance stands for the broad scope of the museum community. (www.aam-us.org)  

Shop Local at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum

The gift shop at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum is the perfect place to find last minute gift items and stocking stuffers!

Find handmade and handpainted ornaments, coffee and tea mugs, photography and art prints, jewelry, bird feeders, stained glass, holiday cards, locally made hot sauce, t-shirts and hats, collectible lighthouse items, Dark of the Moon Ghost Tours merchandise, our Tin Pickle Cafe handmade fudge, and so much more! See photos below of many items offered, or shop online here.