One of the most historic landmarks in Fernandina Beach, Florida is the Amelia Island lighthouse, perched high on a bluff above Egans Creek. If you’d like to see Florida’s oldest lighthouse, book a tour to visit the grounds of Amelia Island’s lighthouse built between 1838 to 1839.
Those taking a coastal road trip may like to map out a few historic lighthouses along the way. America’s lighthouses are very special places. These beacons are a glimpse into history, wonderful symbols of America’s maritime ancestry. Thankfully, preserved lighthouses remain to enlighten future generations about the past, as time marches on.
Lighthouse tours can be arranged through the Fernandina Beach Recreation Center by calling (904)310-3350 (reservations are required in advance). Note that the lighthouse tour is only given two days per month (the first and third Wednesday monthly at 10 am). 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 Avenue. The shuttle bus ride is just a few minutes. Expect to be on the lighthouse property for about an hour. The gates to the lighthouse property are also opened up for a few hours on Saturdays from 11 am to 2 pm, allowing visitors to walk around the lighthouse grounds, take photos (but no formal tour).
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 surprised to discover that Amelia Island holds claim to the oldest lighthouse in Florida. 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. The second St. Augustine lighthouse (still standing today) was completed in 1874, long after the Amelia Island lighthouse.
BUILT DURING “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 “westernmost lighthouse on the east coast of the United States,” just one of the interesting facts learned on the tour. 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 between 1821 to 1845, but most had a fate ending in the water, eventually washed out to sea.
The lighthouse is also one of only two remaining lighthouses in the state designed by Winslow Lewis, the American lighthouse builder. The Amelia Island Lighthouse is located on a 60-foot bluff (i.e. 60 feet above sea level), overlooking the marsh and Egans Creek.
Another unique aspect is the rare granite spiral stairway. This is the only existing lighthouse in Florida with a spiral staircase made of granite – each step is a handcut stone. Fifty-nine granite steps lead upward to the lantern, with two additional flights of cast-iron stairs above them.
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 and 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 of this historic landmark, and step inside the bottom of the lighthouse. However, note that climbing the lighthouse staircase to the top is not permitted.
MORE ABOUT 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 nearest lighthouse to Amelia Island in this northeast Florida region (that is open to the public for touring), is the St. Augustine lighthouse and museum (about an hour drive south from Fernandina Beach). A nice day trip from Amelia, plan a little lighthouse road trip. The St. Augustine light’s signature is a candy-striped black and white tower with red lantern, and its continuous white light has 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 Fresnel 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.
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.
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 is still out, then the Coast Guard is called to come inspect.)
Today, Ms. Helen said the lighthouse “is cleaned top to bottom once a week, and the electrical systems get checked.”