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The Old Spanish Watch Tower

P. Marlin 2014 / 2018

 

Present Day St. Augustine Lighthouse, built 1874

Noted for its distinctive black and white spiral bands and red lantern room, the St. Augustine Lighthouse is a unique sight on the southeastern coast of the United States. Completed in 1874, the lighthouse was constructed as a replacement for an earlier lighthouse that started as a watch tower during the First Spanish Period.

Photo: P Marlin

The Lighthouse features a 165 foot tall tower with attached oil storage building, housing and other associated structures. There are 219 steps to the top. The original, first order Fresnel lens still serves as the beacon, but today is lit by a 1000 watt bulb, and is 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.

The lighthouse continues to guide mariners through St. Augustine's narrow inlet to this day. Photo: P Marlin

The Lighthouse is St. Augustine's oldest surviving brick structure and has been restored to the original colors and materials used in 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.

James Renrick, architect, in front of keepers' house. 1876

Then and Now. Photo: P Marlin

Lighthouse entrance. Photo: P Marlin

219 steps to the top: Photo: P Marlin

Photo: P Marlin

 

Old Watchtower

Established in 1565, St. Augustine was discovered by Admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles shortly after the founding of the French Colony Ft. Caroline by Admiral Jean Ribault. Determined to maintain Spain's claim to La Florida, Menendez attacked the French at Ft. Caroline while at the same time Ribault was leading an attack on St. Augustine. Menendez would be more successful while Ribault suffered a different fate. Caught in a storm at the entrance of St. Augustine, the French fleet was driven ashore near present day Cape Canaveral. Shipwrecked in an unfamiliar and hostile area, the surviving Frenchmen marched north along the beach in hopes of sneaking past St. Augustine and reaching the safety of Ft. Caroline (unbeknownst to them, Ft. Caroline had already been destroyed). The French were captured by Menendez a few miles south of St. Augustine and massacred.

Me standing at the foundations of the Old Coquina Lighthouse which can be seen at low tide.

Established in 1565, St. Augustine was discovered by Admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles shortly after the founding of the French Colony Ft. Caroline by Admiral Jean Ribault. Determined to maintain Spain's claim to La Florida, Menendez attacked the French at Ft. Caroline while at the same time Ribault was leading an attack on St. Augustine. Menendez would be more successful while Ribault suffered a different fate. Caught in a storm at the entrance of St. Augustine, the French fleet was driven ashore near present day Cape Canaveral. Shipwrecked in an unfamiliar and hostile area, the surviving Frenchmen marched north along the beach in hopes of sneaking past St. Augustine and reaching the safety of Ft. Caroline (unbeknownst to them, Ft. Caroline had already been destroyed). The French were captured by Menendez a few miles south of St. Augustine and massacred.

Aware that St. Augustine was susceptible to assault, Menendez decided to construct a watch tower near the entrance to the harbor to warn the city garrison of approaching ships and possible impendingattacks. In the below map of St. Augustine by Italian cartographer Baptista Boazio in 1586 (Sir Frances Drake's 1586 attack on St. Augustine), the watch tower can be seen near the tip of Anastasia Island.

Surviving numerous raids by pirates and privateers, the wooden tower was destroyed along with much of St. Augustine during Robert Searles' attack in 1668. After its destruction, Spanish authorities ordered that St. Augustine's new tower be constructed of coquina, a natural occurring sedimentary stone composed of sand, crushed coral, cockleshells, and other invertebrates. This new watch tower constructed by the Spanish can seen below in a 1740 map of St. Augustine.

In 1763 Spain traded Florida to the English. Naming St. Augustine the capital of its 14th American colony, the British began to transform Florida into a profitable agricultural and maritime center. The British Governor authorized numerous improvements and additions to St. Augustine. They increased the height of the Spanish watch tower, armed it with signal cannon to improve coastal defense communications, and constructed a barracks to house the facility's small garrison. In 1789, Florida was returned to Spanish rule following the conclusion of the American Revolution. Little changed during the Second Spanish Period which lasted from 1789 until 1821 when Florida became a terrority of the United States. In 1823 the watchtower/lighthouse was replaced with a new tower that stood nearly 30 feet high and was lit for the first time in April 1824.

Old Coquina Lighthouse.

Replica of the lighthouse on display at the St. Augustine Lighthouse Museum

Photos show the remains of the old Coquina Lighthouse which fell into the sea shortly after the new one was built. Near the same area in the newer photo, the foundations of the old lighthouse can be seen at low tide in the shell mound just in front of the wooden pier. Photo: P Marlin

Florida's First Female Lighthouse Keeper

Source: St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum

In 1860, Maria Mestre de los Dolores Andreu became the first woman to serve as an official U.S. Lighthouse Keeper in Florida, and the first Hispanic-American woman to command a federal shore installation. She had lived and worked at the St. Augustine Lighthouse since her husband became keeper in 1854, making her the most qualified and readily available person for the job. Upon the death of Joseph, the town of St. Augustine rallied around her and ensured that she was given the post of light keeper.

She served as lighthouse keeper until 1862, and was therefore the keeper during the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861, the light was darkened by order of the Confederate Secretary of the Navy, and the mayor of St. Augustine had the lens removed and buried. There is no record of Maria after 1862, but she is believed to be buried in Brunswick, Georgia, near where one of her five children lived.

The U.S. Lighthouse was incorporated into the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939. The Coast Guard now honors Maria Andreu as its first female employee, as well as one of its earliest Hispanic members.

Though she was a first in many respects, she followed a long line of keepers at the St. Augustine Lighthouse who claimed Menorcan descent. As light keepers go, St. Augustine has one of the most diverse groups in the United States. This is a reflection of the diversity and change that marks St. Augustine's 500-year history.

The coquina lighthouse remained in continual operation 1824 until the Civil War when the garrison commander ordered the beacon extinguished to prevent it from aiding the enemy. In 1869 the Lighthouse Board decided the time had come to replace the old coquina lighthouse when its foundation was undermined by beach erosion. Finding the old structure unsuitable for restoration, the Board ordered it demolished and a modern tower and keepers' dwelling built in its place.

Ruins of old lighthouse.

Views from the top of the present day lighthouse, then and now.

Sources:
St. Augustine Historical Society
Ponce de Leon Inlet Light Station

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