The Florida Maritime Heritage Trail 
Coastal CommunitiesCoastal EnvironmentsCoastal FortsLighthousesHistoric PortsHistoric Shipwrecks
Port Boca Grande Lighthouse

Port Boca Grande Lighthouse.
Photo courtesy of the Florida Division of Historical Resources.

    Lighthouses have guided mariners for thousands of years and have long symbolized romance, genius, and awe. The world's first recorded lighthouse, a 450-foot tower called the Pharos of Alexandria and built in Egypt around 300 B.C., was one of the "Seven Wonders of the World." America's first lighthouse was constructed of stone on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor in 1716. Lighthouses erected on the coasts of England and Scotland showed engineers how to build on exposed, sea-swept sites, bringing lighthouses out of the safety of harbors and onto rocky, dangerous reefs. In 1823 a French physicist named Augustin Fresnel (pronounced fray-NEL) used prisms, mirrors, and magnifying bull's-eyes to gather and reflect light at many times its original candlepower. Seven types, called "orders," of Fresnel lenses were developed. The first three orders were for seacoast lights, while orders four through six were smaller, for bay or harbor lights. Fresnel's lenses soon illuminated America's coastlines and the modern lighthouse was born.

St. Marks Lighthouse

St. Marks Lighthouse.
Photo courtesy of the Florida Division of Historical Resources.

    Florida's first coastal navigational aid was a 1586 Spanish watchtower at St. Augustine. The first true lighthouse was a 73-foot harbor light built there in 1824. But offshore masonry towers proved vulnerable to storms-the lighthouse built in 1827 on Sand Key, near Key West, collapsed in an 1846 hurricane, killing 14 people seeking refuge there. A new screw-pile design provided stronger anchoring in sandy soils and its open iron framework offered less resistance to storm force winds and waves. Between 1852 and 1900, more than a dozen pile lighthouses were built along Florida's dangerous reefs and they remain in use today. Heat, insects, storms, supply delays, and disputes with Native Floridians influenced the construction of most towers. A solitary life of deprivation and danger challenged the keepers and their families.

Cape Florida Lighthouse

Cape Florida Lighthouse.
Photo courtesy of VISIT FLORIDA.

    Each one of the state's 30 lighthouses has a distinctive daytime color and a unique nocturnal light sequence to aid in navigating more than 1,100 miles of coastline. By 1939, lighthouses were placed under the auspices of the Coast Guard. Lightkeepers became obsolete in the 1960s with the Lighthouse Automation and Modernization Project (LAMP), which uses electric timers, photosensitive cells, and backup generators instead of people to light sailors' passage to safety. The public's desire to preserve these coastal guardians has resulted in most of Florida's lighthouses being placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Many are now parts of parks, wildlife refuges, or recreational areas. To learn more about Florida's Lighthouses, visit The Florida Lighthouse Association and The Yachting Club of America.

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Florida Coastal Management Program This web page was funded in part by the Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Coastal Management Program, pursuant to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Award No. NA97OZ0158. The views expressed in herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the State of Florida, NOAA, or any of its subagencies.
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