Lighthouse HistoryOur History: A Spanish watchtower, built in the late 1500's was the predecessor of the present St. Augustine Lighthouse. St. Augustine is the site of the oldest, permanent aid to navigation in North America. A series of wooden watchtowers evolved into Florida's first lighthouse,. It is likely that some of these early towers held a flame, as is indicated on several archival maps and documents. However, officially the first light in St. Augustine was lit in an existing coquina structure in May of 1824 by Florida's American territorial government. By 1870, this "Old Spanish Watchtower" as it was known, was threatened by shoreline erosion and the US Congress appropriated $100K for a new tower. Construction began in 1871, and it continued for the next three years. Alabama brick and Philadelphia iron work combined with a new hand-blown, nine-foot-tall, Fresnel lens, from Paris, France. This beacon was installed and lit in October of 1874 by head keeper William Russell and remains one of only a few such operating lenses in the United States. The old tower succumbed to the sea during a storm in 1880. At this time Brev. Major William A. Harn, United States Army (retired) was head keeper. Harn was a veteran of most of the major battles of the Civil War including Fort Sumter and Gettysburg.
The Lighthouse is St. Augustine's oldest surviving brick structure, and today the site is restored to colors and materials used the year 1888. In 1876, a brick light keeper's house was added to the property, a triplex that held two families and a young, single, 2nd assistant keeper, most often of Menorcan descent. Brick summer kitchens were added in 1886. In 1910 10,000 tourists visited the property. During World War II armed Coastguardsmen stood guard atop the tower, fixed jeeps in the 1836 garage and lived in a small barracks building. Light keepers' and their assistants lived and worked at the Light Station until the tower was automated in 1955. After that time Lamplighters lived off site, but also took over maintaining the buoys in the harbor.
The St. Augustine Lighthouse rises 165 feet above sea level and contains 219 steps that are climbed by visitors. At the top, the original, first order Fresnel lens still serves the beacon, but today is lit by a 1000 watt bulb, and maintained by the museum and volunteers. The St. Augustine lens consists of 370 hand-cut glass prisms arranged in a beehive shape towering twelve feet tall and six feet in diameter.
In 1980, the Junior Service League of St. Augustine, Inc. who were then a group of only 16 volunteers began a fifteen-year campaign to restore the Keepers’ House that was destroyed and gutted by a vandal's fire. The League when on to restore the lighthouse tower and with assistance from the United States Coast Guard in the form of Joe Cocking and Nick Johnston, they performed the first Fresnel Lens restoration in the world. The lens had been damaged by a vandal's bullet, and was almost removed, but the entire community stepped in to save this front porch light for the community. A maritime museum was opened to the public part-time in 1988 run by volunteers. In the Spring of 1994, the full site was opened to the public full time. And in 1998 the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum, Inc. was separately incorporated as a not for profit institution with a mission of history, education and community service.
Today the museum uses admission and store sales as well as memberships and donations to protect the original restoration to Department of the Interior Standards. The non-profit, private Museum also provides educational services to the community, supports at-risk children and funds a maritime archaeology program that studies shipwrecks in the water's of the Nation's Oldest Port. Some 300K worth of in-kind services are donated to the community each year to support other local charities and organizations. Hundreds of volunteer hours are logged building civic pride.
In July 2002, the U.S. Coast Guard, through the National Park Service and the General Services Administration, transferred the deed for the tower to the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum, Inc. through the pilot program of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. The Museum won a National Trust for Historic Preservation award in recognition of their work in helping to transfer historic lighthouses to non-profits for this law. In addition, the Coast Guard turned over the first-order, Fresnel lens to the Museum. The Museum now operates the site as a private-aid-to-navigation and literally keeps the light shining. In 2014 the Museum purchased the remaining parcel of the 6.5 acre light station property from St. Johns County, continued work on a shipwreck from the American Revolutionary era and served 43,000 school age children. Our educational mission is "to discover preserve, present and keep alive the stories of the Nation's Oldest Port as symbolized by our working St. Augustine Lighthouse."