Photograph of the Saint Augustine Lighthouse with trees in the foreground and the moon in the background. The St. Augustine lighthouse sits on the northern end of Anastasia Island, where the nearby Matanzas River empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Several towers have been built in this area throughout the years overlooking the inlet that leads to St. Augustine. Early on, the Spanish constructed a wooden lookout tower. Later, a more permanent tower was built using blocks of coquina that was formed as large deposits of shells were cemented together over time by calcium carbonate.
In March 3, 1823 Congress appropriated $5,000 to create a new tower with a height of roughly thirty feet, the modified tower was placed in service in 1824. Juan Andreu, a Minorcan, was paid $350 a year to care for the lighthouse and tend the ten oil lamps, set in silver, bowl-shaped reflectors.
In 1854 the lighthouse was outfitted with a fourth-order, revolving Fresnel lens, and by this time the height of the tower had been increased to over fifty feet. In 1859, Joseph Andreu, son of Juan Andreu and the fourth head keeper of the light, fell sixty feet to his death when the lashing of the scaffolding gave way while he was whitewashing the tower. Joseph’s wife, Maria Mestre de los Dolores Andreu, took over as keeper and served until the light was extinguished shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War.
After a new lens and lantern were furnished, the tower was reactivated on June 1, 1867, but by that time, it was clearly evident that erosion was endangering the lighthouse. On July 1, 1870, the distance from the keeper’s dwelling to the high-water mark was seventy feet, but by November the distance had shrunk to just forty feet. The Lighthouse Board determined that a new lighthouse was needed, and a five-acre tract, located a half-mile inland, was acquired after old Spanish land grants and claims of settlers were straightened out.
Plans for the new lighthouse were drawn up by Paul J. Pelz, chief draftsman of the Lighthouse Board who would later be one of two architects responsible for designing the Library of Congress. Construction on the lighthouse began in late spring of 1872 using $60,000 provided by Congress on March 3, 1871 and $20,000 added in 1872. The walls had grown to a height of just a few feet when these funds were exhausted, forcing work to be suspended. An additional appropriation of $25,000 on March 3, 1873 allowed the work to continue, and the lighthouse commenced operation on October 15, 1874.
This tower was built using brick from Alabama, granite from Georgia, iron work forged in Philadelphia, and a first-order Fresnel lens crafted in France. The revolving lens producing a fixed white light, varied every three minutes by a white flash, at a focal plane of 165 feet, and the tower was painted in distinctive black and white spiral bands, the same daymark used at Cape Hatteras. The small building attached to the base of the tower originally housed a keeper’s office on one side and an area for storing the large drums of lard oil, used in the lighthouse’s lamp, on the other. After the light was converted to kerosene, a new brick oil house was built a safe distance away from the tower in 1890 to contain the more volatile fuel.
While work was underway on the new tower, the Lighthouse Board submitted the following report: “A keeper’s dwelling will be required, as there are not sufficient or proper accommodations at the old lighthouse for three keepers – the number required to attend a first-order light-house – and the distance is too great from the new tower to insure proper attendance, even if the present dwelling were suitable.” Congress appropriated $20,000 on June 23, 1874 for construction of a keeper’s dwelling at the new tower and for building jetties to protect the old site. The keepers continued to live at the old lighthouse until a duplex, built just east of the new lighthouse, was finished in 1875.
The head keeper lived in the north side of the new dwelling, with the first assistant in the south side and the second assistant making do with two small rooms located on the top floor between the two sides. The keeper’s bedrooms were located upstairs, while downstairs each side had a dining room on the west and a parlor on the east side.
Constructing the new lighthouse proved to be a prudent move as the old tower toppled into the sea on August 22, 1880.
The keeper’s dwelling was electrified in 1925, but the tower was not wired up until 1936. Electricity lessened the keeper’s responsibilities, eventually leading to the de-staffing of the lighthouse in 1955. Local lamplighters were subsequently employed to polish the lens and switch the light on and off, and the dwelling was rented out for several years. David Swain, a former assistant keeper at the lighthouse, filled the role of lamplighter from 1956 to 1968. Full automation of the light occurred around 1971, when a sun relay was installed atop the tower to activate and deactivate the light.
In the late 1960s, the dwelling was boarded up, declared surplus, and put on the auction block. St. Johns County was negotiating the purchase of the dwelling when it was completely gutted by an arson fire on July 28, 1970. The fire did reduce the purchase price, but made restoring the structure a daunting task. The county considered tearing down the dwelling, but the Junior Service League of St. Augustine, founded in 1935 by a group of women interested in improving social, educational, and cultural conditions of St. Johns County, offered to take on the restoration project in 1980. Eight years later, the dwelling was opened as a maritime museum. In 1990, the Junior Service League signed a lease with the Coast Guard for the lighthouse, and the following year the tower, equipped with safety features, was opened to the public for climbing.