One of the most historic landmarks on Amelia Island is the Amelia Island lighthouse, perched high on a bluff above Egans Creek. If you’d like to see Florida’s oldest lighthouse, then book a tour to visit the grounds of Amelia Island’s lighthouse in Fernandina Beach, Florida, built in 1839. Lighthouse tours can be arranged through the Fernandina Beach Recreation Center located on Atlantic Avenue in Fernandina, call (904) 277-7350. (Also watch Florida Fine Living Media’s Amelia Island Lighthouse video below…)
Have you been under the assumption that since St. Augustine is Florida’s oldest city, then it would also be home to the oldest lighthouse in the state? Many are, indeed, surprised to discover that Amelia Island has claim to the oldest lighthouse in the state. St. Augustine is actually the oldest “continuously-occupied city” in the entire United States, dating back to 1565. However, the first St. Augustine lighthouse crashed into the sea around 1880. The second St. Augustine lighthouse (still standing today) was completed in 1874.
BUILT DURING THE “TERRITORIAL PERIOD”
The unique location of Amelia’s lighthouse, being three quarters of a mile inland (more sheltered from inclement weather), has helped preserve the structure. In fact, it is the furthest inland lighthouse in Florida. It is the only lighthouse in Florida from the “Territorial Period” that has survived without major rebuilding. By comparison, most lighthouses were built closer to the shore – thus, more subject to the seaside’s harsh elements. Many lighthouses did not fare well and were either moved or destroyed by storms and erosion. Reportedly, during the Territorial Period, 16 other lighthouses were built during 1821 to 1845, but most had a fate in the waters they once guided —eventually washed out to sea.
Besides being the oldest lighthouse in Florida, another very unique feature of the Amelia Island lighthouse is it being one of only two remaining lighthouses in the state designed by Winslow Lewis, the American lighthouse builder. The lighthouse itself is located on a 60-foot bluff (i.e. 60 feet above sea level) overlooking marshland grasses and Egans Creek. It also showcases a very rare granite spiral stairway.
MARVELOUS GRANITE STAIRWAY AT AMELIA’S LIGHTHOUSE
The lighthouse stairs are extremely unique – this is the only existing lighthouse in Florida with a spiral staircase made of granite – each step is a handcut stone – 59 granite steps. Above the granite steps are two additional flights of cast-iron stairs that lead to the light.
Upon arrival at the Amelia Island lighthouse grounds, tour participants will listen to an interesting presentation by lighthouse historian, Ms. Helen O’Hagan Sintes. This enlightening talk is conducted in an air conditioned building on the lighthouse grounds. This lighthouse tour at the Amelia Island lighthouse is a rare treat, with insight from someone who actually lived at the lighthouse as a child. With long family history of lighthouse keeping, the tour guide, Ms. Helen, is of the O’Hagan lighthouse keeper family – both her father (Thomas John O’Hagan) and grandfather (Thomas Patrick O’Hagan), were Amelia Island lighthouse keepers for half a century, from 1905 through 1954. Hear Ms. Helen recall memories of her childhood on the lighthouse property and the interesting history of the lighthouse. Visitors can walk the lighthouse grounds, get some great photos and video of this historic landmark, and step inside the bottom of the lighthouse. However, note that climbing the lighthouse staircase to the top is not currently permitted. (WATCH AMELIA ISLAND LIGHTHOUSE VIDEO, FERNANDINA BEACH, FLORIDA (article also continues with more lighthouse facts below…)
MORE FACTS ABOUT THE AMELIA ISLAND LIGHTHOUSE
The lighthouse is constructed of brick – a “double-walled tower — a cone within a cone — with metal cupola” and stands 67 feet tall. This brick lighthouse actually was first built in 1820 on neighboring Cumberland Island, Georgia, across the channel from Fernandina Beach, and was known as the Cumberland tower. Nature shifted the channel southward, and as a result, the navigational usefulness of the tower on Cumberland became obsolete. Reportedly, in 1834, Congress was petitioned by people of the Florida Territory ( Florida was not yet a state), requesting the lighthouse be moved from Cumberland across the waterway to Amelia Island. Brick by brick, the tower on Cumberland was dismantled in 1838 and reconstructed using the same bricks on Amelia Island, and completed in 1839.
For those not mariners and unfamiliar with lighthouses, each tower within a coastal region has its own unique signature – different exterior paint design as well as its pattern of light flashes. Historically, lighthouses guided those at sea, helping mariners get their bearings and identify the towns they neared, in good weather or bad. Today, however, boaters and fishermen rely more on GPS technology installed in modern vessels for navigation.
The Amelia Island’s lighthouse signature is a flash every 10 seconds. There’s also a red sector in the southeast quadrant that creates a red flash to warn boaters of Amelia Island’s dangerous shoals on the southend. Ms. Helen noted there were many ship wrecks off the southend of the island. The flash of the lighthouse on Amelia Island can be seen about 16 nautical miles. The Amelia Island Lighthouse’s exterior is solid white, formerly whitewashed (Ms. Helen’s father was the last lighthouse keeper to whitewash the tower), with a black lantern. The next closest lighthouse to Amelia Island in this northeast Florida region that is open to the public for exploring, is the St. Augustine lighthouse and museum. Its signature is a candy-striped black and white tower with red lantern. The St. Augustine lighthouse has a continuous white light with a more intense flash every 30 seconds.
THIRD-ORDER FRESNEL LENS
Originally, the lighthouse used 14 oil lamps (burning whale oil and lard oil) with reflectors. Later, kerosene was used as fuel. The original oil house survived, located adjacent to the tower. In 1903, the oil lamps were replaced with a Third-Order Fresnal lens that is still in place today. This type of lens, reportedly was “state of the art” in the 19th century, and came in six strengths – the First Order being the largest. The Amelia Island lighthouse lens has 12 sections, each with a “round convex bulls-eye panel” that provides the bright flash of light as the lens rotates.
Ms. Helen noted that today the “prism is rotated so the sun doesn’t sit on one prism constantly.” She also said with the automated system now, that if the first light goes out, a back-up comes on, and they keep a supply of replacement bulbs. (If a bulb is changed and the light still is out, then the Coast Guard would be called to come out to inspect.) Today, Ms. Helen said the lighthouse ”is cleaned top to bottom once a week, and the electrical systems get checked.”
LIGHTHOUSES – REFLECTIONS OF A BYGONE ERA
In today’s electronic and technological age, progress in modern times has mitigated the necessity of the lighthouse as a navigational tool. Modern day GPS on boats and ships have replaced the seafarer’s reliance on visual sightings of lighthouse towers along the coast. But still, boaters like being guided by the light. In 1933, the Amelia Island lighthouse was electrified, and then in 1970, the light was automated, ending the era of lighthouse keepers. Twenty-one lighthouse keepers had managed the upkeep of the Amelia Island lighthouse from 1838 to 1954. Just imagine for a moment, those bygone days in the nineteenth century, when lighthouse keepers had to carry buckets of oil up more than 70 steps to the lantern, and every four hours had to wind the clockwork mechanism and trim wicks.
Lighthouses across our nation are a very special place to share history with children and grandchildren. Lighthouses will always be a glimpse into history, majestic symbols our maritime ancestry. In fine or stormy weather, lighthouses will remain to enlighten future generations about the past, as time marches on. They are coastal gems, gleaming beacons of light from yesteryear, and should be preserved.
HOW TO ARRANGE A TOUR OF THE AMELIA ISLAND, FLORIDA LIGHTHOUSE GROUNDS
Tours of the lighthouse grounds can be booked through the Fernandina Beach Recreation Center located on Atlantic Avenue in Fernandina, call (904) 277-7350. To participate in the lighthouse tour, you need a reservation in advance, and keep in mind the lighthouse tour is only given two days per month (the first and third Wednesday each month at 10 am). The lighthouse was not accessible to the public until about two years ago, when the city opened up limited access. The tour costs $5 per person, and participants catch the shuttle bus to the lighthouse from the Fernandina Beach Recreation Center located at 2500 Atlantic Ave., (it’s very close to Fort Clinch State Park and Fernandina’s Main Beach Park). The shuttle bus ride is just a few minutes, and expect to be on the lighthouse property for about an hour.
If you stand in front of the Atlantic Recreational Center, and look in the direction of the green marshland grasses on the north side of Atlantic Avenue, you’ll see the top of the lighthouse above the tree canopy. Note that the Amelia Island lighthouse property is contained behind locked gates and personal vehicles are not permitted on the entry road into the lighthouse grounds.
While Ms. Helen O’Hagan Sintes recalls her youthful days living at the lighthouse when “nobody was around us,” today, the tower sits surrounded by homes in a quiet, residential community. This is one reason why tours are limited – to respect the privacy of local residents.
U.S. LIGHTHOUSE SOCIETY & PASSPORT PROGRAM
For those with an admiration or curiosity of lighthouses, there’s a society you can join. Show your support for the restoration and preservation of American lighthouses by joining the United States Lighthouse Society. The basic annual membership fee is $35, and includes a quarterly magazine and newsletter to keep you up-to-date on the lighthouse scene. The Amelia Island Lighthouse is a participant of the U.S. Lighthouse Society’s “Passport Program.” With a similar look to an official US passport, a lighthouse passport can be purchased for $10 online from the society at U.S. Lighthouse Society. Those visiting participating lighthouses across the U.S. can get a unique stamp of each lighthouse on their passports. A list of participating lighthouses is on the society’s website. Taking a road trip along the coast? Why not map out a few historic lighthouses along the way? Linger for a moment in time, reflecting on simpler, bygone days.