St. Augustine Lighthouse: Illuminating America’s Oldest Port

Lisa Fritscher February 20, 2011 3 Comments

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St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum

The Lighthouse and Museum is a surprisingly large complex

Located on the northern end of Anastasia Island, within the city limits of St. Augustine, the St. Augustine Lighthouse plays a critical role in water navigation. In May 2010, Dad and I set off to tour the lighthouse and accompanying museum. The surprisingly expansive museum and audio tour provided a great deal of historical information, while the climb to the top yielded an amazing view.  

Lighthouses of St. Augustine  

St. Augustine Keepers' House

The Keepers' House is now a museum

The first lighthouse on the property was built by the Spanish shortly after they settled the area in 1565. It was a crude wooden structure designed more for primitive defensive than ship guidance, but served both purposes until St. Augustine was burned by English privateer Sir Francis Drake in 1586.  

The Spanish built a much larger complex in 1683. Built from coquina, a soft but sturdy stone made of compressed shells, and surrounded by a coquina wall, the complex included a guardhouse, watchtower, well and ammunition storage house. The complex was expanded and refurbished each time it changed hands.  

In 1821, the United States acquired the Florida Territory and the Territorial Council requested lighthouses for Pensacola and St. Augustine. The coquina building was converted to a true lighthouse for the first time, opening in 1824 under lighthouse keeper Juan Andreu.  

When Florida joined the Confederacy, lighthouse keeper Maria De Los Delores Mestre and Captain George Gibbs extinguished the light to help deter Union attacks by sea. Customs master Paul Arnau removed the lens and buried it in a secret location. Though the lens was later recovered, the light was not relit until 1867.  

By 1870, beach erosion had nearly reached the coquina lighthouse. A new brick lighthouse was constructed west of the original structure. It opened in 1874 under keeper William Russell, who previously operated the coquina lighthouse. The original keepers’ house fell into the ocean in 1878, and the old tower collapsed in 1880.  

Victorian Duplex Added by Keeper William Harn

The Victorian duplex was added by keeper William Harn

The brick lighthouse was operated for 20 years by Union war hero William A. Harn. His family was welcoming to visitors, often serving lemonade out on the front porch of their home, a Victorian duplex built during Harn’s reign.  

Each head keeper was aided by two assistant keepers, who lived in separate portions of the duplex-style home. Modern technology brought changes over the years, from the 1885 conversion to kerosene lamp fuel, to indoor plumbing in 1906. The keepers’ house received electricity in 1925, but the lighthouse was the last in Florida to receive electricity in 1936.  

As automation and technology reduced the duties involved, the number of keepers dropped from three to two and eventually to one. In 1955, the lighthouse was fully automated and the last full-time lighthouse keeper departed Anastasia Island. The keepers’ house was rented to local residents during the 1960s, and sold to St. John’s County in 1970. That year, the house suffered a devastating arson fire, although the lighthouse was not affected.  

Restoration and Museum Conversion  

The Junior Service League Restoration

The Junior Service League did a great deal of restoration work

The Junior Service League of St. Augustine took over the lighthouse and grounds in 1980 and began the process of restoring the complex. Despite setbacks, including serious damage to the lens by rifle fire in 1986, the JSL had the support of numerous organizations. The complex opened to the public in 1994 as the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum.  

Today the museum includes the rebuilt keepers’ house, themed to its 1867 appearance, the lighthouse tower, a World War II jeep repair facility, and a 1941 Coast Guard barracks. There is also a maritime archaeology exhibit and displays on the local boatbuilding industry. An audio tour provides detailed information about each location, and the knowledgeable employees are happy to answer questions.  

Our Visit  

St. Augustine Lighthouse Tower Stairs

The stairs to the tower base don't look so intimidating

We arrived mid-morning, intending to see everything. As of 2011, adult tickets are $9 per person, with a small discount for seniors aged 60 or over and children aged 11 or younger. Family ticket packages and annual passes are available. A private tour of the lens room is available by appointment, but at $500 per person it was a bit out of our price range!  

Dad was doubtful about his ability to climb the 219 steps due to his health conditions, but good-natured travel partner that he is, he agreed to try. A few jokes about the ability of a stretcher to reach the top of the stairs, and we were off to make the climb. You can listen to the audio tour, included in the price of admission, in any order, so we headed to the tower first to “get the climb over with,” according to Dad. 

Surprisingly, the climb was not that challenging. There are wide landings after every dozen or so steps, and many are audio tour stops. Pacing the climb gave Dad a chance to catch his breath and rest his legs. The total elevation gain is 14 stories, and there are windows on every landing that let you monitor your progress. 

St. Augustine Lighthouse Spiral Steps

Dad made it up all 219 steps

Emerging on the top deck was quite an experience. The spiral stairs get progressively steeper and narrower as you approach the top, making the last portion of the climb intimidating for those (like me!) who suffer from claustrophobia and a fear of heights. I took the last steps tentatively, suddenly finding myself on the very narrow top landing. Feeling claustrophobic, I stumbled out the door to my left, out into the bright sunshine. The deck is surrounded by a railing, but it feels particularly open and exposed after the confining climb. I saw several fellow climbers with their backs pressed against the wall, as far away from the railing as possible.  

St. Augustine Lighthouse View from the Top

The view was spectacular from the top

But wow, what a view! I got my bearings for a moment and then stepped out to the edge. As the wind whipped through my hair, I took in the sights all around St. Augustine. Dad was pretty eager to get back on the ground, though, as his back was feeling the climb. It’s amazing how much easier it is going down!  

Back on the ground, we sat and caught our breath for a bit, and then headed outside to take in the rest of the tour. It seemed that every time we turned a corner we made an exciting new discovery. We spent more than two hours exploring the various buildings and displays.  

Myths and Legends  

St. Augustine Lighthouse Myths and Legends

The tower is filled with myths and legends

The lighthouse is replete with tales of ghostly activity. While the daytime tours do not mention these legends, most staff members are eager to share their stories if asked. The lighthouse was featured on an episode of Ghost Hunters. Our first experience with the lighthouse was actually on a ghost tour several years ago. We did the Hearse Tour of St. Augustine, which proved quite creepy as we were the only guests on the tour, and one of the stops was the lighthouse grounds. We didn’t see anything unusual, but the tales definitely set a spooky mood.  

The lighthouse offers “Dark of the Moon” tours on most, but not all, Friday and Saturday nights throughout the year. These evening tours focus on the paranormal history of the complex, with an emphasis on presenting the historical facts behind the legends. As of 2011, these tours cost $25 for adults and $20 for children 12 and under. Call ahead to be sure that the tour is available on your chosen evening.  

Height and Accessibility Information  

St. Augustine Lighthouse Height Restrictions

Children must be 44 inches and able to climb under their own power

For safety reasons, children must be 44 inches tall to climb the lighthouse. They must also be able to climb under their own power. The steep, spiraling stairs are not conducive to carrying a child, and if you were to slip, it would be almost impossible to maintain your own balance while holding a child.  

Children who do not meet the height requirement to climb receive several perks. The child and one parent are admitted free of charge to the museum and the tower base. The child also gets a free coloring book and a certificate entitling him to a free climb when he is tall enough.  

As a historic building, the lighthouse tower is not accessible to those who are unable to climb the steps. However, there is a ramp to the ground floor of the keepers’ house. An alternative stairway to the basement of the keepers’ house has only six steps and can be opened by staff upon request. Most of the grounds are wheelchair accessible. Staff members go out of their way to provide whatever assistance they can to those with disabilities, so don’t hesitate to ask if something specific is possible.

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avatarAbout the Author:

Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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3 Comments to “St. Augustine Lighthouse: Illuminating America’s Oldest Port”
  1. avatar Castillo de San Marcos Fort St. Augustine Florida says:

    [...] Located on the edge of the historic district in St. Augustine, Florida, Castillo de San Marcos was built by the Spanish at the end of the 17th century. Dad and I visited in May 2010 as part of our visit to St. Augustine. [...]

  2. avatar Fort Barrancas Pensacola Florida says:

    [...] Naval Air Station, a working military base. The general public is permitted to visit the fort, the Pensacola Lighthouse and the National Naval Aviation Museum. All adults must show photo identification at the guard [...]

  3. avatar National Naval Aviation Museum: Aircraft Through the Ages says:

    [...] [...]