With its 53 meters high, Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse is the third tallest lighthouse in America and it has stood guard over Florida’s coast since 1887.
Its story began in 1835, when a lighthouse was built on the south side of what was then called Mosquito Inlet (now Ponce de Leon Inlet). A conical, brick tower and a dwelling were hastily completed and the first keeper assigned to the station was William H. Williams who received an annual stipend of $450.
However Keeper Williams didn’t have much work to do, in fact the oil for the lamp was never delivered, and soon after the tower was completed a strong storm washed much of the sand from around the base of the tower, weakening it. The Second Seminole War began soon after, and in December 1835 Seminole Indians attacked the lighthouse, smashing the glass in the lantern room and setting fire to its wooden stairs. The war prevented repairs from being made to the tower, that collapsed the next year.
Years later, in 1883, construction began on a new lighthouse at a different spot in the inlet despite there were many shipwrecks along the coast.
The construction was overseen by Chief Engineer Orville E. Babcock who, sadly, drowned with three associates during the works.
In 1887, the lighthouse was completed, and it featured a first order fixed Fresnel lens from France, which could be seen from 17 nautical miles (32 kilometres) away.
On November 1 of the same year its first keeper, William Rowlinski, who had most recently served as first assistant keeper at Cape Romain Lighthouse in South Carolina, lit the lamp for the first time.
Author Stephen Crane published his Civil War masterpiece “The Red Badge of Courage” in 1895, three decades after the conclusion of this divisive conflict. In 1896, an editor provided him an opportunity to experience battle firsthand by covering the budding rebellion in Cuba.
Thus the following year Crane, then a journalist who was en route to cover a revolt against Spanish rule in Cuba, was shipwrecked off the coast of Florida. Along with several other men, he escaped in a small boat, and the men used the light from the Ponce de Leon Lighthouse to navigate to shore. In his short story “The Open Boat”, the author recounted the incident:
“The captain, rearing cautiously in the bow, after the dingy soared on a great swell, said that he had seen the lighthouse at Mosquito Inlet. Presently the cook remarked that he had seen it. The correspondent was at the oars, then, and for some reason he too wished to look at the lighthouse, but his back was toward the far shore and the waves were important, and for some time he could not seize an opportunity to turn his head. But at last there came a wave more gentle than the others, and when at the crest of it he swiftly scoured the western horizon.
‘See it?’ said the captain.
‘No,’ said the correspondent, slowly, ‘I didn’t see anything.’
‘Look again,’ said the captain. He pointed. ‘It’s exactly in that direction.’
At the top of another wave, the correspondent did as he was bid, and this time his eyes chanced on a small still thing on the edge of the swaying horizon. It was precisely like the point of a pin. It took an anxious eye to find a lighthouse so tiny.”
Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse was electrified in 1933, and the first-order Fresnel lens was replaced by a third-order lens relocated from the discontinued Sapelo Lighthouse in Georgia. This new lens rotated producing six flashes in a fifteen-second period followed by a fifteen-second eclipse. It was fully automated in 1953.
Today, the lighthouse is still in active service. A National Historic Landmark since 1998, it is now open to the public and the supporting buildings have been beautifully restored and are now operated as a private navigational aid and museum by the Preservation Association. The view from the top is spectacular and features a collection of 1st thru 6th order lenses along with hundreds of related artifacts.
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Images from web – Google research