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St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum celebrates the 145th Anniversary of the Historic Tower

St. Johns County residents receive free admission on October 15 with code JSL

The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum celebrates 145 years of maritime history in the current historic, lighthouse tower. The second lighthouse at St. Augustine was built from 1871 to 1874 and topped by the first-order Fresnel lens from Paris, France. The first lighting was by Keeper William Russell on October 15, 1874.

“The tower stands testament to a maritime heritage that is one of the foundations of our community. Our lovely light is a symbol of safety, security, and community service, the front porch light for our community, one that has seen the likes of Henry Flagler, the development of the Alcazar Hotel, the Spanish American War, the building of the Bridge of Lines, two world wars, and the development of a modern, shrimping fleet that literally changed the foodways of the United States. It is right that we should celebrate its anniversary,” said Kathy A. Fleming, the Museum’s Executive Director since 1994. 

The oldest brick structure in St. Augustine, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the St. Augustine Lighthouse beacon is a private, but active aid-to-navigation, with the original lens shining kept shining through the efforts of the Museum’s staff and corps of 270 volunteers. 

The tower and lens were saved by the Junior Service League of St. Augustine (JSL) between 1980 and 1998, when a separate community-based Board of Trustees took control of the Museum. The 1876 Keepers’ House burned in 1970 and was threatened with demolition. Initially, 16 women in the JSL stepped in to accept ownership from the County of St. Johns, turning back the bulldozers and restoring the house. They opened it as a maritime museum, with an idea of helping others.

“Sherry Butler Bowen was one of the women with that earliest vision,” said Fleming. “She was followed by countless others in our community who keep the torch alight.”

In 1991, Margaret McClure Van Ormer approached the United States Coast Guard about acquiring the historic lighthouse tower; the Coast Guard agreed, and at Margaret’s suggestion, they agreed to paint it first.

In 1993, the JSL celebrated the completion of the restoration project with the first Community Day, including the relighting of the original Fresnel lens and fireworks. The event garnered 5,000 visitors and drew national attention with CNN covering what was then the first restoration of a Fresnel lens in the world.


To mark the 145th anniversary, the Museum will celebrate with the public from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesday, October 15, 2019. St. Johns County Residents are free that day if they mention the passcode “JSL.” 

Then from 6 pm to 8 pm on October 15, the Museum will hold its Annual Meeting of the Members, which will feature a birthday cake. The speaker will be Executive Director and JSL Active Sustainer, Kathy Fleming, who will share some lighthouse stories.

There will be a recognition for Architect Ken Smith (Kenneth Smith Architects of Jacksonville). Smith oversaw the restoration of the tower working with then Museum director, the late Cullen Chambers. Smith has continued to oversee preservation efforts at the historic light tower ever since.

The Junior Service League of St. Augustine, Inc. and the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum are being honored by receipt of the Herschel Shepherd Award, by the St. Augustine Society on October 2 in an event organized by the Historical Society. 



When it became evident that the first St. Augustine Lighthouse (called the Old Spanish Watchtower) was doomed to fall into the ocean, the U.S. Congress appropriated $100,000 funding for a new tower. The U.S. Lighthouse Service began construction on a new 165-foot lighthouse in 1871 and it was completed in 1874. Local African Americans and Lighthouse Service Professionals worked together on site. 

More than 1 million bricks came by boat from Alabama, along with granite from Georgia, and steel from Pennsylvania. Supporting the lighthouse is a poured concrete foundation that begins 8 feet below grade, and rests on a naturally-formed coquina shell-rock underpinning. A concrete and masonry base of 10 feet 9 inches rests atop the foundation. Wall thickness is 5 ft 8 inches at the base of the 165-foot-tall tower (a masonry, truncated cone).


On October 15, 1874, lighthouse keeper William Russell lit the oil lamp inside the new, first-order Fresnel lens for the first time. He most likely walked to the tower from his residence at the old St. Augustine Light Station, upon which the sea was rapidly encroaching. The lens is 9-feet tall, and Russell would have had to climb inside it to light the lamps.

The jewel-like lens was handcrafted just for St. Augustine in Paris, France by the company of Sauter & Lemonier. It represented the height of Victorian engineering and technology and cast its beam much farther out to sea than its predecessor. The new light demonstrated three fixed-flashes, from three bulls-eye panels that could be seen from up to 24 nautical miles depending on atmospheric conditions. Fueled by lard oil, and then kerosene the first light would have given a glowing, yellow-hued light. 

On February 28, 1889, The Saint Augustine Weekly News described the lens in the following manner, “The lamp was a brass cylinder of 10 gallons capacity. Inside it has a heavyweight, which governs the flow of oil to the burner. The burner has five wicks in concentric circles…The globe is a huge case of glass, which revolves around the lamp every 9 minutes. It makes a flash every three minutes when a big bulls-eye lines up between the lamp and the human eye. The cage weighs two tons.”

In 1955 the light was automated by an astronomical clock, automatic lamp (light bulb) changer and backup generator. The night mark changed at this time as well. Today an electric motor controls rotation speed, and one fixed white flash, every 30 seconds, shines across our home town. 

The Museum provides a host of services including donations of more than $300,000 annually in goods and services to other nonprofits. The team preserves six historic buildings and holds over 19,000 artifacts in trust for future generations. Educational Programs, Maritime Archaeological Research, Heritage Boat Building, and an active volunteer program of 300+ volunteers help build wellness, job experiences for young people, and civic engagement. 

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


A pivotal navigation tool and unique landmark of St. Augustine for 145 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 American Alliance of Museums:

The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum has achieved accreditation 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. 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)

Frequently Asked Questions by Lighthouse Visitors

Before You Visit

Q. Can I climb the lighthouse?

A. Yes, weather permitting, you can walk out on the observation deck and look into the lens room. For their safety, children must be at least 44 inches tall to climb.

Q. Are there any restrictions to climbing?

A. You must be at least 44 inches tall to go up to the top of the lighthouse. Children who are not tall enough to climb get in free, and one adult with them gets in half off. Carrying children in the tower is prohibited, and all climbers must do so on their own power.

Q. How tall is the lighthouse?

A. The St. Augustine Lighthouse is 165 feet tall.

Q. How many steps are there?

A. There are 219 steps to reach the observation deck. There are also eight landings, one with a bench, where visitors can rest and let other people pass.

Q. What is there to do besides climb the lighthouse?

A. We have a children’s play area and puppet theater for those too short to climb, and there are exhibits in four historic structures and the new Maritime Center, many of which are hands on and interactive. We also have a boatbuilding program and schedule of Daily Demos that cover boatbuilding, historic sailing and navigation, underwater archaeology and lighthouse history.

Q. Can you see through the stairs?

A. Yes. However, there are railings conveniently located on both sides.

Q. Does the lighthouse have an elevator?

A. No, the lighthouse is an historic structure, completed in 1874.

Q. Is the site handicap accessible?

A. Yes. An alternative short entrance path is available from the handicapped parking to the grounds. Staff will open the gate upon request. A ramp provides access to the ground floor of the Keepers’ House, containing exhibits. Other exhibits, including the PGA Artifact Conservation Lab Viewing Hallway, in the Maritime Education Center are also wheelchair accessible, and there is a video, “A View from the Top” so those unable to climb can see the view. However, the light station is an historic site and certain areas are accessible only by stairs. Upon request staff will open the emergency exit door to access the basement, a six-step stairway alternative to the spiral staircase inside the dwelling. Stairs lead up to the second floor of the keepers’ house. The office and storage room at the base of the tower are accessed by five steps equipped with handrails. The base of the lighthouse is reached by an additional twelve granite steps with handrails. A large-print, self-guided walking tour is available in the Visitor’s Center.


Q. Can I climb in the rain?

A. Yes, unless there is thunder or lightning, you are able to climb the tower in the rain. The observation deck will be closed if it gets too wet or if rain is coming in the access door. There is no climbing when thunder and lightning are observed in the area.

Q. Does it ever get too windy to go to the top?

A. When wind speeds at the top of the tower exceed 30 mph, children are restricted from going out on the observation deck. When wind speeds reach 40 mph or greater, access to the observation deck is off limits to all climbers.

Fun Facts and Information

Q. When was the lighthouse built?

A. The St. Augustine Lighthouse was built between 1871 and 1874. It took three years to build due to lack of manpower and funds. It was first lit October 15, 1874.

The first St. Augustine Lighthouse, called the Old Spanish Watchtower, fell into the ocean in 1880.

Q. Why is the lighthouse so far from the coast?

A. The first St. Augustine Lighthouse was approximately 500 yards northeast of the current Lighthouse and fell into the ocean in 1880. The current location was selected due to its relatively high elevation atop of an old beach dune.

Q. Does the St. Augustine Lighthouse still come on at night?

A. Yes, it is a privately-owned active aid to navigation. The nonprofit St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum owns and maintains the lighthouse and other historic structures on the grounds.

Q. What were the rooms at the base of the tower used for?

A. The north room, on the right when you are looking at the tower, was used to store the lard oil that fueled the light in the late 19th century. To the left, or south of, the entrance was the lighthouse keepers’ office, where they maintained detailed records of equipment, repairs, maintenance and watch logs.

Q. Is that the original Keepers’ House?

A. Yes, it is the original Keepers’ House. After being gutted by fire in the 1970s, the Junior Service League of St. Augustine restore the structure and opened a museum. The house and lighthouse tower are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Q. Why is the Keepers’ House so big?

A. St. Augustine had up to three lighthouse keepers and their families that lived in the home. It was arranged as a duplex, with the Head Keepers’ family on the north side, the 1st Assistant Keeper on the south side, and a single room for the 2nd Assistant Keeper, who was usually unmarried. So while it is a big home, it housed up to 15 people at any given time!

Q. What are the other historic buildings?

A. The Tin Pickle, Local Gedunk WWII-themed eatery, is located in a building first constructed as a garage for the keepers in 1936. As part of the coastal response to WWII, it was converted into a garage to maintain jeeps that worked on the U.S. Navy Beach Patrol that looked for German U-boats and other threatening activity off the coast. The other small white building directly north of the keepers’ house was built in 1941-42 to house additional U.S. Coast Guardsmen that ensured a 24-hour lookout from the top of the lighthouse.

Q. What is Maritime Archaeology?

A. Click here to learn more about our Lighthouse Maritime Archaeology Program.

St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum welcomes Cultural Heritage team from Spain

From left: John Regan, St. Augustine City Manager; Manuel de la Cruz, Edriel Intelligence; Carlos Leon Amores, General Subdirectorate of Historical Heritage of the Ministry of Culture for the Nation of Spain; Kathy Fleming, Executive Director of St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum; Francisco Sanchez-Guitard, Edriel Intelligence and member of a Spanish boat building family; Leanna Freeman, Vice Mayor City of St. Augustine; John Valdes, City Commissioner, City of St. Augustine; Irving Kass, Owner of Saint George Inn and Board of Trustees Treasurer at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum; and Chuck Meide, Director of Archaeology at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum.

St. Augustine, FL –The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum welcomed a Cultural Heritage team from Spain on Thursday, April 25 at the nonprofit Museum.

Honored guests from Spain included Carlos Leon Amores, Independent consultant for the ministery General Subdirectorate of Historical Heritage of the Ministry of Culture for the Nation of Spain; Manuel de la Cruz from Malaga, Spain and Francisco Sanchez-Guitard of Edriel Intelligence. Sanchez-Guitard is also a member of a Spanish boatbuilding family.

The City of St. Augustine officials were present at the event, with Vice Mayor Leanna Freeman presenting gold coins with the City seal to the Spanish team. Commissioner John Valdes attended as well as City Manager, John Regan. Irving Kass of the St. George Inn kicked off the entire event as the Museum’s Board Treasurer presenting a copy of the PBS video of the story of St. Augustine from the University of Florida Historic St. Augustine.

A gold coin with the City of St. Augustine seal was presented to visiting Spanish guests.

Sanchez-Guitard has a vision shared by the Museum – to make the St. Augustine area a maritime hub of learning, connecting the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum to the  Fountain of Youth, the settlement site of Pedro Menendez de Aviles, and scholars worldwide. This work is echoed by historian Dr. Michael Francis in his La Florida project, revealing Florida history through a digital archive of Spanish heritage in the Americas. Francis and his students are chronicling the lives and culture of those that traveled with Menendez. Please see www.laflorida.org for more information.

Carlos Leon Amores has released the first inventory of Spanish shipwrecks in America (between 1492 and 1898) with more than 600 Spanish shipwrecks on the list. The catalog of Spanish Cultural Heritage is part of the National Plan for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage developed by Spain, under the principles of the UNESCO convention and funded in part through a partnership with NOAA. Amores’ list does not yet include shipwrecks in the First Coast region. The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum’s research arm, the St. Augustine Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program, seeks to become the first archaeological nonprofit to help with this important work and to add the nation’s oldest port to this international database.

“Our Museum’s shared objective with scholars from all over the world is not so much to raise these ships from the ocean floor, but to preserve the information that they hold and to protect them from looting and pillaging, said Kathy Fleming, Executive Director of the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum.

“Instead we seek to tell their hidden stories, and reveal our worldwide connections to each other.”

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