Multiple lighthouses have served to mark the entrance to Puerto San Juan, one of the most important ports in the Spanish Empire. The first Puerto San Juan Lighthouse, and the first in all of Puerto Rico, entered service on January 1, 1846. Built atop the fort’s Austria Bastion, the bastion closest to the bay’s entrance, the lighthouse exhibited a light using five parabolic reflectors.
In 1876, the lighthouse was moved to Ochoa Bastion, the bastion closest to the sea, where it could be better seen by vessels approaching the harbor from the northeast. This new lighthouse featured an octagonal brick base that supported an octagonal cast-iron tower, painted gray and white. The lighthouse’s base was roughly ten-feet-tall and the tower approximately twenty feet tall, giving the light a focal plane of 171 feet above high water.
The cast-iron tower was “rendered unserviceable” during the Battle of San Juan, part of the Spanish-American War, which occurred in May 1898 when Admiral Sampson arrived with a fleet of twelve ships and briefly bombarded the city. The Americans gained control of Puerto Rico after the Treaty of Paris was ratified on December 10, 1898. Ensign W.R. Gherardi of the U.S. Navy was put in charge of Puerto Rico lighthouses on January 24, 1899, and he immediately began work on an octagonal tower, built of reinforced concrete, to replace the cast-iron one. The light from El Morro Lighthouse began burning again on March 22, 1899.
By 1905, the concrete tower developed a serious crack around the top of the tower, and it was torn down and replaced with the present three-story tower in 1908. The Lighthouse Board adopted a Spanish-influenced design for this brick tower, the top of which is surrounded by a crenellated parapet with an ornamental guardhouse at each corner, similar to those seen on fort. A third-order Fresnel lens, manufactured in France by Sautter, Lemonnier, & Cie and equipped with eight flash panels, was installed in the tower’s helical bar lantern room. The lens is somewhat unique in that it does not have prisms above or below the central drum. A 200-pound weight, suspended in the central column of the tower’s cast-iron spiral staircase, powered a clockwork mechanism that controlled the revolution of the lens. An electrical motor replaced this drive mechanism in 1932. The total cost for the new lighthouse was $3,961.47.
The present El Morro Lighthouse was originally painted gray, but by 1937 it had been painted a cream color with brown trimmings. The light was automated in 1962, and the keeper positions were discontinued.
In preparation for the quincentennial celebration of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the New World, parking lots and paved roads surrounding El Morro were removed, and the lighthouse was repaired and restored to its original appearance by the National Park Service.