Florida Finds: St. Augustine Lighthouse

ST. AUGUSTINE—I was prepared to view a beautiful lighthouse—and perhaps even climb 219 steps and 165 feet to the top for a view of Matanzas Bay and St. Augustine. But I never expected to find so much to see and do on the ground at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Marine Museum on Anastasia Island.

My visit lasted a mere two hours, but I could have easily stayed all day. That would have given me time to explore the lighthouse keeper’s quarters more extensively, view the exhibit about the local shrimping and boating industry, peer at artifacts found from an 18th century shipwreck, and perhaps get to watch volunteer boatwrights build small wooden boats.

Did I say all day? Make it all day and all night. From Nov. 22 through Jan. 21, the keepers’ house and grounds will be illuminated by lights and garlands with 21 trees uniquely decorated with themes that will include Shells from the Sea, Keepers Ornaments and Old Florida.

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There’s also more to do when the sun goes down with occasional sunset/moonrise experiences from atop the lighthouse and ghost tours that look at lighthouse hauntings.

St. Augustine Lighthouse with visitors on deck

Executive director Kathy A. Fleming can’t contain her enthusiasm when she talks about the museum. She’s been there since December 1994, coming onboard just months after the museum opened its doors full time in the spring of that year.

“It’s almost like studying a bit of family history,” she said. “My husband’s great grandfather was a lighthouse keeper in the Bahamas.”

Historians and archeologists who are part of the museum team are documenting historic moments from the area’s past, which include uncovering artifacts from a boat that shipwrecked in nearby waters in 1782, when British residents were fleeing the battles of the Revolutionary War.

“One poor man had his door lock, folded into a piece of linen,” she said. “Apparently, he was going to put it into his new house, wherever he landed. You can imagine him packing it up.”

Fleming is quick to sing the praises of women from the Junior Service League of St. Augustine who saw potential in a lighthouse that was about to be scrapped.

“The keeper’s house was burned in a fire in the 1970s and the U.S. Coast Guard was about to declare it excess property when it burned. It was just a wreck,” she said. “There were 15 or 16 women who stepped in and said, ‘You’re not going to tear it down.’ They got grants and community donations and they saved it. Some are still on our board today.”

She also described the work of another historian on staff whose research uncovered the existence of the facility’s first African American lighthouse keeper, who went on to become a minister.

St. Augustine Lighthouse lens

But if you think the lighthouse itself is just a relic from the past, think again. The lighthouse still functions as a private aid to navigation and houses the original, 9-foot-tall Fresnel lens handmade in France.

On Oct. 15, the museum celebrated the 147th anniversary of the tower’s first lighting. That also kicked off a fundraising campaign for lighthouse renovations and restoration.

Additionally, the facility has been awarded funds from the state government to restore and preserve the interior of its tower, with work expected to be completed next year. Donations from friends of the museum, the St. Augustine community, Florida Lighthouse Association and others will fund painting the exterior and other restoration needs.

The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum even has something for the very young, featuring a special play area with a maritime feel and trails to explore to check out native plants and animals.

World War II is part of the ambiance here as well. One exhibit looks at St. Augustine’s role during World War II, when there was real concern Nazi submarines might be lurking off the Florida coast.

Then there’s the Tin Pickle, made to resemble a “gedunk,” or canteen, aboard a United States Navy vessel. It is in a building first constructed as a garage for the keepers in 1936.

What you can pick up here to stave off hunger is not the usual snack bar fare—try house-made sangria, just-out-of-the-oven muffins or cookies and specialty hotdogs. There’s also handmade fudge, including a yummy key lime variety.

If you are lucky, you might end up on a day when Silvia Thomas, who does everything at the canteen, makes her empanadas. Silvia hails from Mendoza, Argentina. Trust me, they are the real thing. The last time I had empanadas so good was when I was in Argentina.

Museum achievements include making the official list as a Smithsonian Museum affiliate as well as holding membership in the American Alliance of Museums. Or as they themselves would say, what you will find here is “a lighthouse and so much more.”

St. Augustine Lighthouse overlooking Matanzas Bay

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to note the museum celebrated its 147th anniversary in October. 

This is the second in a new series titled Florida Finds. In this regular series we’ll take you to museums, parks and other family friendly venues around Central and North Florida. Some may be familiar to you, but our goal is to shine a spotlight on jewels that receive less attention—all within a day trip of Gainesville.

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