Keepers of the Light

Keepers of the Light

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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Volunteers Give Over Half a Million Dollars in Donated Services to the Museum

Volunteers from the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum donated over 21,000 hours in 2016 to help with maritime research, building and artifact preservation, improving the visitor experience and teaching others at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum, Inc.


Volunteers are the heart of the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum, and on Thursday, March 9, the Museum had the chance to honor them. Many of their dedicated volunteers and staff gathered at the historic St. Francis Barracks Officer’s Club to celebrate the Lighthouse volunteers who donated over 21,000 hours in calendar year 2016.


Executive Director, Kathy A. Fleming opened the evening up by thanking the volunteers for all that they do for the Museum and assuring them “You are deeply loved.” Fleming then introduced Peter Spiller, Chairperson of the Board. Spiller congratulated the group for “making the organization stronger with their many talents and comprehensive experience.” Board Member Maury Kaiser was also in attendance, as were many other volunteer boat builders, docents, preservationists and conservation volunteers who give their time to teach children, clean the Museum, preserve the site, or work with underwater artifacts.


Volunteer & Events Manager Loni Wellman, gave a certificate to each volunteer calling out the hours donated individually. Katey Anderson represented the Junior Service League of St. Augustine, whose members still give 10 hours each, every year to the Lighthouse, a Legacy project of the league. Hours given are all appreciated and started with only 9 hours a person. Wellman and the staff offered a warm note of thanks and if wanted, a hug. The volunteer in attendance with the most hours given this year was William Mai with 440 hours. Any volunteer who gives over 40 hours receives a free Museum Membership. The Museum has 253 volunteers of all ages, and also works with corporate and school volunteer programs.

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According to the National Value of Volunteer Time, the number of hours contributed by St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum volunteers in 2016 has a cash value of $512,312.00, if the Museum were to pay for those same services. It is really much more than that for us, said Fleming. “You cannot replace the love and care and passion our volunteers bring to us for any amount of money.” Wellman added, “Volunteerism also brings wellness to people of all ages because it builds true friendships and a sense of community engagement.” She continued, “Lighthouse volunteers take part in many tasks at the Museum, from scientific diving on shipwrecks to leading tours around the historic site to helping in the office.  There is a job fit for everyone.” Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum can contact Loni Wellman at or (904) 829-0745, ext 213.

Conservation Around Site – Harpoon

People have hunted whales around the world for thousands of years, primarily for meat and blubber. In America, the practice really took off in the colonial 18th century and hit its peak in the mid-19th. The most lucrative product at this point was whale oil, derived from boiling down blubber or harvesting the head of sperm whales. As the American industry grew and expanded, so did the whaling practices and technology, which is where our conservation topic comes in today.

There is a harpoon that is part of an education collection in the oil house. While the whaling industry was never directly involved with the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum, it was still a part of the lighthouse world. The refined whale oil was a highly sought after commodity used for lantern fuel and many lighthouses were lit in such a manner.

Harpoon in whaling display, with scrimshaw and baleen.
Harpoon in whaling display, with scrimshaw and baleen.

In order to get the whale oil, crews had to somehow hunt and harvest them. Early harpoons were made of wood, bone and stone. They were thrown or shot into the whale and attached to a floating object. The idea was to tire the whale out until the hunters could finish it off.  Eventually, as larger whale species were targeted, larger, deadlier and more durable harpoons were created. Our particular artifact is an interesting variation that became a gold-standard for harpoons. The style is referred to as a “standard improved toggle” harpoon. It is credited as being designed by Lewis Temple, a freed slave and blacksmith. He opened a shop in the whaling community of New Bedford around 1845 and his style became incredibly popular, partly because he never patented the design and since it was so effective. This does make it difficult to definitively identify our harpoon, though, as many manufacturers made and sold them.

Standard improved toggle head.
Standard improved toggle head.

The small head is designed to cut and penetrate deep into the whale skin easily. The rear of the head has a sweeping barb that holds the harpoon in place. The ingenuity of Temple’s invention, though, is a pivot in the center of the head. When the harpoon is pulled back, the barb turns outward and rotates the head into a T-shape, locking it in. Another clever bit of engineering is the long, skinny shaft. The cast iron used in the harpoon is strong, but flexible, so that it can twist and bend after insertion and during the pursuit.

Bent toggle harpoon.
Bent toggle harpoon.

The conservation for the harpoon was very easy and unobtrusive since the artifact does not actually belong to the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum. I did not want to add any chemicals or sealants that would be difficult for a future curator or conservator to remove, should the need arise.

Overall the condition of the metal was pretty good. There were a few spots here and there on the bare cast iron that showed signs of corrosion. These were exclusively on the head and base of the shaft. The paint on the shaft of the harpoon, however, looked good and did not need any treatment.

I started by carefully brushing off the rust and corrosion product from the iron using a toothbrush. For the more stubborn spots I used a small wire wheel and bit of steel mesh. When the metal was clean, I then covered the exposed parts with a light coat of air tool oil to penetrate and prevent additional oxidation. The oil has few additives that would strip the iron or gum up the surface while it dried. After the oil, I then sealed both ends of the harpoon using heated microcrystalline wax. The molten wax is able to seep into all the pores of the metal and seal the surfaces from exposure to the atmosphere.

Oil house harpoon with toggle pivoted.
Oil house harpoon with toggle pivoted.

Lighthouse To Host Annual Night Fest Saturday March 4th


In conjunction with the Junior Service League’s Lighthouse 5K & Fun Run, the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum will be open free to the public from 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. with crafts, food, and live music.

ST. AUGUSTINE, FL – Continuing the long partnership between the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum and the Junior Service League of St. Augustine (JSL), the Museum will host its annual Night Fest celebration on Saturday, March 4th in conjunction with the Lighthouse 5K & Fun Run. Night Fest commemorates the Lighthouse’s community legacy and is sponsored by Publix Super Markets Charities, Herbie Wiles Insurance, and Harbor Community Bank.

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The 1876 Keepers’ House after a suspicious fire in 1970, before restorations began.

The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum will open free to the public beginning at 4:00 p.m. The JSL’s Lighthouse 5K race will begin at 4:30 p.m. and the Fun Run will begin at 5:30 p.m. Visitors are invited to explore the various exhibits in the Keepers’ House, and climb the 219 steps to the top of the Lighthouse tower for a spectacular sunset view of St. Augustine. During the event there will be arts and crafts available for children, live music, and other museum activities. Hot dogs, sodas, beer, and other refreshments will also be available for purchase.

In the 1980’s the Junior Service League led a massive community effort to restore the St. Augustine Light Station after a suspicious fire and years of neglect left the grounds in disrepair. The restoration of the Keepers’ House was completed in 1990 and the Lighthouse reopened in 1991. The Junior Service League raised over $1.2 million ($2.4 million in today’s dollars) for the renovations, and continued to work to save the Lighthouse’s original 1874 first order Fresnel lens, which was relit in 1993 during the first Lighthouse festival.

DSC_0866The Museum remains dedicated to the community that brought it back to life, providing educational programs and seasonal camps for local students. In 2016, approximately 50% of camp participants were at-risk youth who received scholarships to attend. To further improve the educational programs at the Lighthouse, a brand new education and research center is being built and is projected to open in the fall of 2017.

In addition to the Museum’s education and research expansion, the Lighthouse has plans to for new exhibition spaces in its World War II-era garage and barracks. These new exhibits will teach visitors about St. Augustine’s role as a U.S. Coast Guard training site during the war.

For more information on the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum’s Night Fest celebration, visit



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 & Maritime Museum is on a mission to discover, preserve, present and keep alive the stories of the Nation’s Oldest PortSM 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.

Five Things You Might Not Notice at the Lighthouse

As you might imagine, visitors to the St. Augustine Lighthouse are often excited about climbing the tower and enjoying the amazing panoramic view from 140 feet in the air. But in your excitement to climb the 219 steps to the top, you may overlook many small details that reveal some interesting stories of the Lighthouse. And if climbing the tower is your only concern, then there are many other details you will miss in and around the Keepers’ House and grounds. Next time you visit, see if you can spot some of these staff favorites.

1. Stair markingsThe number 18 is visible on this stair

It is quite a climb up 219 steps to the observation deck, also called the “gallery.” Eager to complete the climb, you could easily miss the first item on our list. If you look very closely, you will find small numbers and letters on the iron staircase. Continue reading