One of the most historic landmarks in Fernandina Beach, Florida is the Amelia Island Lighthouse, perched on a 60-foot-high bluff overlooking the marsh and 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.
Taking a coastal road trip? Why not map out a few historic lighthouses along the way. America’s lighthouses are very special places, wonderful symbols of America’s maritime ancestry. Thankfully, preserved lighthouses remain to enlighten future generations about the past, as time marches on.
The lighthouse property is located within a residential neighborhood. Lighthouse tours are only available two days per month (the first and third Wednesday monthly at 10 am), so be sure to plan in advance. The tour costs $5 per person ($3 aged 12 and under). Limited access to the lighthouse property is also available on Saturdays, see more below.
Tour Participants Cannot Climb Lighthouse Tower
Tour participants can walk the lighthouse grounds, get some photos/video of this historic landmark, and step inside the bottom of the lighthouse. However, climbing the lighthouse staircase to the top of the tower is not permitted.
Lighthouse Gate Open Saturdays 11 AM To 2 PM
The entry gate to the Amelia Island Lighthouse property is also open for public viewing for a few hours on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. This weekly viewing opportunity allows visitors to walk around the lighthouse grounds only and take photos (but there’s no formal tour Saturdays). The lighthouse is located at 215 O’Hagan Lane (turn onto North Wolff Street from Atlantic Avenue in Fernandina Beach).
Reservations For Amelia Lighthouse Tour
Lighthouse tours held twice a month are arranged via the Fernandina Beach Recreation Center by calling (904)310-3350 (reservations are required in advance). Tour participants catch a shuttle bus to the lighthouse from the Fernandina Beach Recreation Center located at 2500 Atlantic Avenue. The shuttle bus ride takes just a few minutes, then plan to be on the lighthouse property for about an hour.
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.
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 hand cut 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. This enlightening talk is conducted in an air conditioned building on the lighthouse grounds.
Based on experience from a past tour given by Ms. Helen O’Hagan Sintes, it was a rare treat with insight from someone who actually lived at the lighthouse as a child. With long family history of lighthouse keeping, 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. Ms. Helen’s presentation was fascinating, recalling memories of her childhood on the lighthouse property and its interesting history. (UPDATE: Coast Guard auxiliary members conduct tours since Ms. Helen has retired).
Florida’s Oldest Operating 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 (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, 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. In striking contrast, the bold black lantern area tops off the white tower.
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, they had to wind the clockwork mechanism and trim wicks.
Ms. Helen noted that in contemporary times 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. They also 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. Ms. Helen said the lighthouse “is cleaned top to bottom once a week, and the electrical systems get checked.”
St. Augustine, FL Lighthouse
The nearest lighthouse to Amelia Island in Florida that is open to the public for touring is the St. Augustine lighthouse (about an hour’s drive south of Fernandina Beach), another excellent stop along a lighthouse sight-seeing road trip. The St. Augustine light’s signature is a candy-striped black and white tower with red lantern. Its continuous white light has a more intense flash every 30 seconds.
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 surprised to discover that Amelia Island holds claim to the oldest lighthouse in Florida.
St. Augustine is 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, circa 1838.