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.
For 140 years, the St. Augustine Lighthouse has presented its beacon to sailors along the nation’s First Coast. It’s seen keepers and families come and go, witnessed the construction and removal of auxiliary structures, and adapted to new and innovative technologies, all while the community around it expands and evolves. This series of blog posts will explore that history, 20 (or so) years at a time.
Pre – 1874
The story of the current St. Augustine Lighthouse begins with its predecessor. The current lighthouse in St. Augustine is not the original St. Augustine Lighthouse. The Spanish constructed the tower that became the first lighthouse in 1737. They used a naturally occurring stone called coquina to construct the original tower. The coquina tower replaced wooden watchtowers the Spanish built dating back to the beginnings of Spanish Florida.
A map of Francis Drake’s 1586 raid on St. Augustine reveals the presence of a small tower on Anastasia Island. The map refers to the tower as “a Beacon or high scaffold standing on the sand hills, wherein the Spaniards did use to discover the ships at sea.” The coquina tower continued this watchtower tradition until the United States acquired Florida in the Adams-Onís Treaty (1821). The U.S. Government then set to work illuminating the newly added coastline.
St. Augustine, with its preexisting tower, was a logical place to start. In 1823, John Rodman, Collector of St. Augustine, wrote to Stephen Pleasonton, Fifth Auditor of the U.S. Treasury, that despite the tower’s presence, “…it was never built for a lighthouse or used as one, but merely a look-out-house. The location is well suited…but a great proportion of the tower, nearly one half, is not sufficiently strong to bear any greater elevation either if wood or stone work.” Congress appropriated $5,000 to retrofit and complete the lighthouse and awarded the contract to Elias Wallen who reported on March 25, 1824 that the lighthouse was operational and that Winslow Lewis fit the new beacon with “ten patent lamps and ten fourteen inch reflectors.” Continue reading →