You can see a long way from the top of the tallest lighthouse in Florida.
Gulls wheel in the cloudless sky. To the north sit ranks of tourist-filled Daytona Beach hotels and condos, while just to the south, past the surfers and the nature area, are the less-congested shores of New Smyrna Beach. And way off in the distance, past the swimmers and sun-seekers, kite-flyers and beach-walkers, you can just barely pick out the massive structures of Kennedy Space Center.
To the east is the Atlantic Ocean, vast and treacherous, especially where it meets Ponce de Leon Inlet near the base of the lighthouse.
And if you’re quiet and aware and look really carefully, you can glimpse part of Florida’s wild, pre-high-tech past – a time when mariners depended on this light to avoid one of the most hazardous inlets on the entire East Coast. A time when life in Florida was isolated and the people who lived here had to be tough and self-sufficient. A time when this beacon of hope was a necessary navigational aid, true, but also a symbol of security and safety in a dangerous world.
Florida has long, shining history of lighthouses, as befits a state with a complex, 1,000-mile coastline. With 33 structures, the state is seventh nationally in terms of the number of lighthouses. Michigan, by contrast, boasts 104 while Maine’s craggy coast sports 64. Nevertheless, the Sunshine State ranks as one of the most popular destinations for lighthouse aficionados to visit.
The earliest lights in Florida were simple wooden watchtowers established by the Spanish in the 1560s. The British in 1774 designed and built the first beacon intended strictly for navigational purposes at “Musquito Inlet,” known today as Ponce de Leon Inlet (or simply Ponce Inlet to the locals). The first keeper earned $24 a year.
The first real light station in the state became operational in April 1824 in St. Augustine. It survived the Civil War, but was threatened by erosion in the years afterward. A new tower was erected in 1871 on a nearby site that was less susceptible to being washed away. The oldest continuously operating light sits on Amelia Island. With the exception of the Civil War, it has been guiding mariners since 1839.
The last manned light station was built in 1954 near the mouth of the St. Johns River in Jacksonville. It was automated in 1967.
Early lighthouses warned travelers by means of oil or kerosene lanterns. Keepers had to haul 40-pound buckets of the stuff up the stairs to keep the lamps alight. Beginning in the 1850s, Fresnel lenses were installed. Fresnels, designed by a French physicist, consist of a series of prisms arranged so that they magnify and focus the light. Today’s lighthouses are electric and fully automated.
Lighthouses are great places to visit, combining fun, education and – if the kids are lucky – a day at the beach. All are unique and worthy of consideration, but you just can’t physically go to every site – and not all are open to the public. So let us illuminate your way.
The Ponce Inlet lighthouse, at 175 feet, is the tallest in Florida and the second tallest brick lighthouse tower in the nation. Only Cape Hatteras in North Carolina is taller. A recently inaugurated tour called Climb with the Keepers ($50) gives visitors a glimpse of what life was like for early lighthouse operators and their families.
The Ponce Inlet light also helped save the life of Stephen Crane, author of the Civil War classic “The Red Badge of Courage.” Shipwrecked about 10 miles off the coast, he and other survivors used the light to guide them to shore. He immortalized the experience in his story, “The Open Boat,” considered one of the finest sea stories in the English language.
The Amelia Island lighthouse is the oldest continuously operated lighthouse in the state. Except when it was “dark” during the civil war, it has been operating since 1839. A quirk in the curvature of the coast makes the Amelia Island light the furthest west of any lighthouse on the East Coast, with the exception of the western Keys.
The St. Augustine lighthouse – the first established in the state – has withstood three earthquakes, including the 1886 quake centered in Charleston, S.C., which was the strongest quake recorded in the South in modern times.
Popular with visitors and painters, the lighthouse compound also contains one of the premier lighthouse museums in the country. As an added bonus, the structure’s first-order Fresnel lens still operates today. First-order lenses are the largest available, measuring about eight and a half feet tall and more than six feet in diameter.
Other lighthouses open for visitors include the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse, built by George Gordon Meade, who went on to become a general in the Union Army and defeat Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg; the Cape Florida Lighthouse at Key Biscayne, which is part of the Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area; the Key West Lighthouse, which once had a female keeper and later witnessed the arrival of the battleship “Maine” on its way to Havana harbor; and the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse on Gasparilla Island, which earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
The grounds – though not the towers – of several other lighthouses are open to the public. Some are accessible by car, others only by boat. Still others, some of them on military bases, are completely closed to visitors.