Light Damaged at Treasured Fernandina Landmark

Florida’s oldest lighthouse on Amelia Island has gone dark due to damage of its lens.

Amelia Island Lighthouse photo
Amelia Island Lighthouse

Florida’s Oldest Lighthouse Is Dark

AMELIA ISLAND, FL — Built in Fernandina on Amelia Island during 1838 to 1839, the Amelia Island Lighthouse has shone as a navigation aid for about seven generations. Fernandina’s familiar beam of light, well-known to local residents and mariners, stopped shining across Egans Creek to coastal waters on March 16th, 2017, until repairs can be made. Sadly, its vintage Fresnel Lens, considered a “new invention” in its day, has suffered damage. UPDATE:  A six month period of darkness has ended! The Amelia Island Lighthouse beam shines again out to sea as of September 27, 2017.

Fernandina’s Oldest Structure

The lighthouse itself is “the oldest documented above ground structure in Fernandina Beach,” according to a National Register of Historic Places document. The flash of the lighthouse could be seen around 16 nautical miles.

Temporary Darkness?

A Fresnel lens expert, called a lampist, is to examine the lens and evaluate the damage and a cost estimate to fix will be procured. It appears at this time that the light is out temporarily, pending repairs (that hopefully won’t be too costly).

Imagine A Time When . . .

Originally, the lighthouse used 14 oil lamps (burning whale oil and lard oil) with reflectors. 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, the keepers had to wind the clockwork mechanism and trim wicks. The original oil house survived and is located near the tower. Later, kerosene was used as fuel.

The lighthouse news was relayed to the public via social media (Facebook), by a United States Coast Guard Auxillary representative, who posted the following March 16, 2017:

“The Amelia Island Lighthouse, Florida’s oldest operating lighthouse, is turning “dark” today. During a routine inspection by United States Coast Guard Auxiliary, it was discovered that one of the twelve bulls-eyes lenses was damaged. The US Coast Guard’s Aids to Navigation Team inspected the lens and determined it must be turned off (rotation and lamps) until an assessment can be made by a Fresnel lens expert. Curtains have been installed today to protect the lens from sunlight while it is not rotating. We will keep you informed and will continue our scheduled inspections and cleaning duties.”

Third-Order Fresnel Lens

Amelia Island Lighthouse Third-Order Fresnel Lens Damaged
Amelia Island Lighthouse Third-Order Fresnel Lens Damaged

It was in 1903 that the oil lamps were replaced with a Third-Order Fresnel lens that is still in place today. This type of lens, reportedly was “state of the art” in its time, 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. Developed by a French physicist, Augustin Jean Fresnel, the lens was said to be “revolutionary” for lighthouse optics.

Light House Electrification

In 1933, the Amelia Island lighthouse was electrified. Eventually, in 1970, catching up with modern times, the light was automated, ending the era of lighthouse keepers.

Having taken the official lighthouse tour some years ago, guided by lighthouse historian, Ms. Helen O’Hagan Sintes, visitors to the historic site learned about how the “prism is rotated so the sun doesn’t sit on one prism constantly.” She also noted what happens with the automated system, saying 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 is still out, then the Coast Guard is called to come inspect.) She also said the lighthouse “is cleaned top to bottom once a week, and the electrical systems get checked.”

Relocated From Cumberland Island

Some may not realize that the Amelia Island Lighthouse was 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.

National Register of Historic Places

The following excerpt from the registration form of the National Register of Historic Places (dated 2003, when the lighthouse was added to the historic register), describes what occurred:

“Responding to increased shipping and cries for a lighthouse by Robert Stafford and other prominent planters on Cumberland Island to the north, the Congress approved the construction of a lighthouse on the south end of Cumberland Island. Requests as early as 1802 finally resulted in a lighthouse being constructed in 1820. That year, Stephen Pleasonton, chief of the fifth auditor’s office and supervisor of lighthouse contracts, awarded a bid to construct the lighthouse to Winslow Lewis of Boston for seventeen thousand dollars. As completed, the structure stood one hundred twenty-six feet, a significant coastal lighthouse. Despite the treacherous channel at St. Marys Entrance, Amelia Island did not support any significant navigational aids while under Spanish control, which ended in 1821. Shipping increased after the United States annexed Florida, and in the early-1820s St.Marys became a port of entry and residents of Fernandina incorporated the town. Initially, the Cumberland Island lighthouse served as a useful navigational guide. But, in the 1830s, the entrance’s channel shifted southward, causing the lighthouse to lose some of its effectiveness as an aid to navigation.”

Lighthouse Tours

Read further details about the Amelia Island Lighthouse. Guided tours of the lighthouse grounds happen just twice a month on the first and third Wednesday for $5 per adult. Tours depart at 10 am, participants ride in van/bus over to the lighthouse from the Fernandina Atlantic Rec Center located at 2500 Atlantic Avenue. Visitors can roam the property, see inside the bottom of the lighthouse and its oil house, and listen to enlightening lecture about the history of the lighthouse while sitting in air conditioned building next door. Advance registration required for these lighthouse tours, call the city Rec Dept. at 904-310-3350. Note that tour visitors have never been allowed to actually climb the tower stairs.

Gates Opened Saturdays

The lighthouse address is 215 O’Hagan Lane, Fernandina Beach. Note that the gates to the property are opened up on Saturdays for public access to the grounds and photo taking opportunities (no guided tour), from 11 am to 2 pm.


By The Editor

Observations of island life, news & opinion by Wendy Lawson. With background that began at a newspaper, she later spent 14 years in the financial services and real estate industries (managing editor at an equity research firm and Series 7 licensed while at Merrill Lynch). She's enjoyed the laid-back Amelia Island lifestyle since 1993.