Continuing our “journey” along the American coastlines, we’ve reached the Southern and Gulf Coasts. If you imagine lighthouses with tall towers reaching high toward the clouds, you’re probably remembering these aids to navigation found in tonight’s focus region.
With coastline and necessity dictating the style of the lighthouses and history leaving its mark, lighthouses along the Southern and Gulf Coasts are memorable structures, former homes, and aids to navigation.
The geographical coastline from Virginia around the Florida peninsula across the Gulf of Mexico to the border of Mexico is comparatively flat. There aren’t cliffs to set a lighthouse on. Instead, flat land or gentle sandy hills, marshes, and swamps constitute most of the shoreline. However, off shore danger lurks. Shoals, reefs, and other submerged dangers necessitated the construction of lighthouses.
Hurricanes routinely hit these coasts during the storm seasons, making additional challenges to design, construction, and lightkeeping.
And – though not a force of nature – history played a unique role in lighthouse history in this region. During the American Civil War (1861-1865), the southern states seceded and tried to form a separate country. Since lighthouses were federal property, many were targeted for destruction maliciously and as defense when the Union navy started blockading the Confederate coast. Fresnel lens were destroyed, lighthouse towers used for artillery target practice (or simply happened to be in the line of fire during battles), and the whole coastline was basically dark and lacking aids to navigation. After the war, the U.S. Government and Lighthouse Board assessed the damaged, made repairs, or built new structures.
Unlike the shorter styles in New England or the pylon construction in the Middle Atlantic, lighthouses in the South and along the Gulf almost universally included a tall tower to put the light high enough to be seen at sea. Without cliffs or high promontories in the region, engineers built the towers to raise the light.
In some places, lighthouses were constructed on tall pylons, raising they high above the water…and hopefully standing through the fierce storms.
Sometimes the living quarters were beside the tower. Other times they were at a short distance away in a separate “house” building.
Some Famous Southern Lighthouses
Two hundred and ten feet tall, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (North Carolina) is the tallest lighthouse in the United States – equivalent to a twelve story building! The first lighthouse was built at the location in 1807 to warn ships of the Diamond Shoals (aka “Graveyard of the Atlantic) but that structure was destroyed during the Civil War. The tower standing today dates back to 1870, is protected by Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and is open for exploration.
Cape Canaveral Lighthouse (Florida) now stands on a military base and witnesses regular rocket launches. Talk about a location with history! There have been two different lighthouse structures and one re-location for this lighthouse. The first was built in 1848, the second in 1868, after the Civil War. At the end of the 19th Century, coastal erosion threatened the lighthouse and it was moved inland. The lighthouse still stands and is open for educational tours on certain days.
Some Famous Gulf Lighthouses
Sandy Key Lighthouse stands six miles off the Florida Keys. First in service in 1853, the keepers quarters and the light anchored on screw piling, twisted into the ocean floor. Designed with open framework to withstand hurricanes, the lighthouse has remained standing through some fierce storms.
Aransas Pass Light Station was built in the 1850’s – between the Mexican American War and the Civil War. The top twenty feet of the tower was blasted away by artillery fire during the Civil War, but later rebuilt. Hurricanes have also damaged the buildings. Deactivated by the Coast Guard, the lighthouse happily found “friends” who restored the lighthouse and hired a caretaker to look after this piece of Gulf Coast history.
A Story To Remember
Lighthouse keepers have been honored and remembered for their dedication and service. They often faced challenges from storms and other natural forces, but one lighthouse and keepers came under attack from the warring Seminole tribe.
In 1825, Cape Florida Lighthouse was build on – you guessed it – Cape Florida, about thirty-ish miles north of Carysfort Reef. With the Seminole Indians on the warpath in 1836, the lighthouse keeper moved his family inland, leaving the assistant keeper – John W.B. Thompson – and an African-American man (probably a slave) to tend the lighthouse.
On July 23, the Seminoles attacked the lighthouse while the assistant and slave barricaded themselves in the lighthouse tower and shot muskets. The Indians lit the lower part of the building on fire and watched as the flames forced the besieged men up into the highest part of the tower; still, they were burned by the flames. The assistant keeper tried to blow up the tower by pushing a barrel of gunpowder into the flames. The black man was killed during the fire fight and musket fire with the Indians. The assistant keeper was trapped, badly injured, and alone. The lighthouse stairs had burned away.
The Seminoles left, and long hours later, Thompson was rescued by members of the U.S. Navy who took him to a military hospital for treatment. (The lighthouse was rebuilt in 1846).