81 Lighthouse Avenue St. Augustine, FL 32080
On the coast of Florida, where the Tolomato and Matanzas Rivers spill out into the unforgiving waters of the Atlantic, stands one of America's oldest and most haunted structures: the St. Augustine Lighthouse.
Standing 164 feet tall, nestled on the northern edge of Anastasia Island since the mid 1500s, this lone sentry has seen its fair share of history—for better or for worse. From the colonization of the Americas, to the Hundred Years' War, to the birth of a nation and its subsequent divide, the St. Augustine Lighthouse has stood watch, year after year, through plagues and power struggles, as a beacon of hope in the darkness.
And it has left a mark.
You may not see it at first, but it’s there. Looking up at its twisted, black and white striped base, capped with a blood-red crown, you can almost sense it. That something is off. But it isn’t until you’ve run your fingers along its coquina walls, a mixture of limestone and broken shells, that you can really feel it—what the centuries and the salt have carved out like ancient runes.
It holds memories.
On the ground floor living quarters, where so many lighthouse keepers have laid their heads over the years, the raw, almost sickly-sweet smell of a freshly-lit cigar can be detected, subtle beneath the ocean air. Remnants of a different time, when men huddled around wood-burning stoves and waited out the storms, praying that no lives would be lost on their watch.
Inside the lighthouse proper, climbing the tall, spiraling staircase, the sound of crashing waves and screeching gulls is dampened by the thick walls. The sudden quiet is almost welcome, until a new sound emerges: the bell-like ringing of a little girl's laughter. It starts at the top of the stairs, high above your head, and works its way down, down, down until it is silenced, abruptly.
In the red room at the very top, the beacon itself sits staring like a giant glass eye, seeing through time to the world that was before. You step out onto the catwalk, taking in Anastasia Island and the enormity of the sea beyond. It feels like you could be one of those lone lighthouse keepers, on duty, eyes on the horizon. That is until you see her, a shadow of a woman in the corner of your eye, holding onto the railing and leaning out into the open air—until she isn’t.
You too grip the railing, white-knuckled, looking out over the trees to the water beyond. You can’t help but wonder what it would feel like if you stepped out too? To be nothing more than another memory left behind at the St. Augustine Lighthouse, standing watch and waiting as the centuries slipped by and history rewrote itself.
Like all hauntings, the spirits that roam the grounds of the St. Augustine Lighthouse didn’t just appear from nothing. Over the hundreds of years that the structure has stood, many people have come and gone, lived and died, and a few have even remained. The sightings that have been recorded on Anastasia Island have roots that go deep into the history of the lighthouse, much of which is now known to us.
For instance, it may be tempting to disregard the lingering odor of cigars, even despite the site being smoke-free. But for anyone who has ever smelled it, or has even seen the too-tall, shadowy figure that often accompanies it, they will tell you that the sense of fear and foreboding in the air lingers long after the cigar has faded away.
Locals and lighthouse employees refer to this spectre as “The Man,” and he is often seen dressed in a blue jacket and mariner’s cap, walking his route up and down the spiral staircase or looking down from the catwalk above. Because of his tall, thin frame, some believe he is the ghost of William Russel, a protective and dutiful lighthouse keeper from the 1850s. While others point to Joseph Andreu, who fell from the top of a scaffolding in 1859 while putting on a fresh coat of paint.
Regardless of who “The Man” is, it’s clear that his shift has never ended.
And who can forget the children’s laughter that bubbles up from thin air and moves across the grounds, from the caretaker’s home to the top of the lighthouse itself, as if it has a life of its own. While children weren’t uncommon on Anastasia Island, especially in more recent years, there are only so many children who have had a reason to stay.
In 1872, the lighthouse was under construction, overseen by a man named Hezekiah Pittee, who stayed on the island with his wife and two daughters while the project was underway. One afternoon, while Pittee’s daughters and a few of their friends were playing near the lighthouse, tragedy struck, and the island was changed forever.
There was a rail cart that the construction crew used to transport supplies from the nearby pier to the lighthouse, and it had become a part of the girls’ favorite game: pretending they were Spanish pirates moving their hoarded treasure to a secret location. Only one day, while rolling near the cliff's edge, the rail cart came off its tracks, sending the young girls down into the water below. Some of them were rescued in time, but, unfortunately, both of Mr. Pittee’s daughters were lost to the sea.
If anything can be said, it’s that the children now get to play long after dark. We know because employees of the St. Augustine lighthouse still hear their giggles ringing out in the night, and have been known to find the dirty, child-sized footprints on the floors the next morning.
Which leaves us with one last vestige of the lighthouse’s history, and perhaps one of the most unnerving: the woman on the catwalk.
Maria Mestre de los Dolores stands out for more reasons than just her recent, ghostly sightings. In 1859, she became not only the first woman to serve in the U.S. Coast Guard, but she also became the first Hispanic-American woman to command a federal shore installation: the St. Augustine Lighthouse.
Her appointment came after her husband, the formerly mentioned caretaker Joseph Andreu, met his fateful end. Maria was heartbroken, left on Anastasia Island to follow in the very same footsteps her husband had once walked, and even was known to stand at the edge of the catwalk, looking down to where her husband's body had once laid, broken.
She can still be found there, on occasion, leaning over the railing and imagining what those last few seconds of Joseph’s life had been like.
There is little doubt that, when it comes to hauntings, there are few places that will leave a mark on its visitors like the St. Augustine Lighthouse. With its rich history, infamous legends, and well-documented sightings, it is clear that what happens on Anastasia Island, stays on Anastasia Island.
Erected by the Spanish crown shortly after the city was founded, the first official record of the lighthouse dates back to an Italian-made map from 1589, in which a wooden watchtower at the northern tip of Anastasia Island is referenced. Unlike the more traditional lighthouse it would eventually become, the first iteration was built solely to keep watch for enemy ships as the Castillo De San Marcos, the infamous military fortress, was being constructe
There it stood until 1737, when the original wood structure was torn down and a new, sturdier watchtower was built in its place using local coquina. It remained in this form until after the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), when the British defeated the Spanish and took control of the island. Under their supervision, 30 feet of wood construction was added to the top of the watchtower, as well as a signal fire, turning it into a rudimentary lighthouse for the first time.
A map drawn in 1780 reflected this change, displaying a symbol of smoke coming from the top of the tower. The British had hoped this new installation would help ease the amount of shipwrecks that had plagued the inlets around the island, but they continued to be a serious problem. This was especially true in 1782, when 16 British ships evacuating troops from the battles of the American Revolution were wrecked during a storm.
After the British defeat at the hands of the Americans in 1783, the lighthouse was briefly returned to the Spanish, along with the rest of Florida, as enacted by the Treaty of Paris. But, little changes were made to the structure until the new, territorial, American Government took final control of the land in 1824, and it was deemed an official American lighthouse.
During the American Civil War, Confederate sympathizers living in St. Augustine sabotaged the lighthouse in order to block Union shipping. It remained non-functioning until after the war, when the new, victorious American government finally relit the beacon in 1867, returning it to operation. However, the sea level was rising, and the lighthouse had to be torn down and relocated further from the shore. The U.S. Lighthouse Service began construction on a new 165-foot tower, complete with 219 steps, in 1871—finishing in 1874.
Near the turn of the 20th century, steam-powered vessels were becoming more common, making it easier for ships to maneuver around the shallow sandbars outside St. Augustine. This, plus the coming of the railroad, made St. Augustine Harbor an important step in the distribution of goods to northern markets. The city, as well as surrounding farms and fishing villages, began to flourish, and the lighthouse soon became an important symbol of that progress.
It continued to be maintained and upgraded with new technology until 1980, when a suspicious fire destroyed the lighthouse keeper’s home and the grounds were declared as excess by the government. St. Johns County, where it is located, considered purchasing the property and building condominiums on the land, but were stopped when the Junior Service League stepped in with a plan to restore the property and open a maritime museum.
The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum opened full-time in early 1994 and the site was soon added to the National Register of Historic Places. To this day, it still serves as an active lighthouse, as well as a museum and popular tourist destination—especially for ghost hunters.
The lighthouse is open to the public for tours of the grounds and adjacent maritime museum. If you're looking for a family-friendly activity, the landmark features playgrounds and children's exhibits.
Ghost tours are also offered at the landmark. A ghost tour is the best option for visitors wanting to explore the lighthouse at night.