The St. Augustine Lighthouse is poised over the city like a watchman, conflicting for attention with the full moon and its ghastly afterglow. A cluster of stars shimmers over the inlet, casting a rigid glare behind the old ship sitting stagnant in the deep water. I look up and see the soaring tower of the stately lighthouse and its gleaming beacon of light, shining like the brightest star in the sky.
The Old Spanish Watchtower to Florida’s First Lighthouse: Lightkeepers Log October 15, 1874, William Russell:
“Light successfully exhibited in new tower”
The precursor to present-day St. Augustine Lighthouse was a Spanish watchtower built in the late 1500’s. As the oldest, permanent aid to navigation in North America, an array of wooden watchtowers matured into Florida’s first lighthouse. Construction began in 1871, and by October 1874, the hand-blown Fresnel lens from Paris was lit by head keeper, William Russel, as the new beacon of light over the oldest city.
Ascending a full 165 feet above sea-level, this unique black and white banded, red-lanterned topped, 219 step, Atlantic Seafaring lighthouse has an original Fresnel lens consisting of 370 hand-cut glass prisms arranged in a beehive shape that stands 12 feet tall, and 6 feet in diameter. With a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean and the coastal waterways of the city, the St. Augustine Lighthouse beacon sweeps 17 miles toward the horizon, leaving the “front porch light” on for the oldest city.
Each lighthouse on the east coast of the United States has a singularity in appearance and lighting characteristic or “nightmark.” Sailors used their uniqueness as a landmark of location and distance to shore. Originally operating as “a flash every three minutes when a big bull’s eye [lens] lines up between the lamp and the human eye”, the St. Augustine Lighthouse currently has a fixed white flash every 30 seconds.
Hezekiah Pittee, the superintendent of the new St. Augustine Lighthouse construction project, discovered that the fabrication of this contemporary watchtower was going to take substantially longer than expected. A year and a half into the project and only 42 ½ feet of tower completed, he moved his doting family from the chill of Maine to the heat of the Florida coast to live with him.
On July 10th, 1873, two of the superintendent’s daughters were playing on the lighthouse grounds with three of their best friends. They pushed each other in a small railcar used for transporting supplies that led from the lighthouse down towards the pier as they did many times before, but today was different. Today the wheels of the railcar shifted and they lost control, careening directly off the pier and into the cold Atlantic Ocean below. Two of the five children were nobly saved by nearby construction workers who saw this unimaginable disaster happen, but the others regrettably drowned. The superintendent and his beloved wife lost two of their darling daughters that fateful day, and he never forgave himself.
While the new tower was seen as a prominent structure in the great city and a sign of great progress, it unintentionally became an environmental hazard for the fowl kind. In a blur of confusion and bewilderment, a flock of birds hit the lighthouse lantern and perished.
November 2, 1874, William Russell:
“At 10:30 PM a flock of ducks in their flight Southward struck the lantern demolishing two lower panes of plate glass & badly chipping the lower prism of Lens"
Mr. Russell decided the best course of action was to put up netting to protect the Fresnel lens. It certainly performed its duties, but alas, the birds kept dying. In one day, William collected 20 ducks and provided food for the families staying at the lightkeeper’s cottage.
Regarded as the “most haunted lighthouse in America”, it is no wonder there have been endless accounts of hauntings at the St. Augustine Lighthouse. A man roaming the basement of the lightkeeper’s house, young girls’ voices heard laughing and playing, shadowy figures traipsing up the stairwells, and the smell of cigar smoke are just a few of reported occurrences.. Ghost Hunters filmed a memorable episode at the oldest lighthouse and even went back for a second helping because of all the activity!
Could it be the superintendent’s girls who perished in the sea still playing in the stairwells as if nothing sinister ever happened? In 1859 a keeper of the old Spanish watchtower named Joseph Andreu fell from the tower to his death. Is he still there wandering the grounds looking for the original coquina walls of his tower that fell into the sea? Or is it keeper William Russell, standing guard at his attentive post, collecting dead birds, and keeping his eye on the horizon?
Located not far from the city center, the St. Augustine Lighthouse is located at 81 Lighthouse Ave. St. Augustine, Florida 32080. During the day you can visit the Lighthouse, take a tour, or view the items in their museum. We highly recommend this experience to people looking to spend some time in a haunted location. Even though it is during the day, it isn't uncommon for people to hear ghostly voices.