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Culebrita, PR  Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.A hike of some distance required.Lighthouse open for climbing.Interior open or museum on site.   

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Culebrita Lighthouse

The Culebra archipelago consists of a collection of just over twenty rocks, cays, and islands, situated eighteen miles east of the main island of Puerto Rico and halfway to St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. Culebrita Island is the easternmost island in both the archipelago and all of Puerto Rico and was thus a natural spot for a lighthouse to mark the Virgin Passage, separating Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Culebrita Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
Construction of Culebrita Lighthouse, which was begun on September 25, 1882 and completed on February 25, 1886, was a difficult undertaking due to the undeveloped state of the island. A wooden pier was first built for offloading supplies that were lightered to shore from the supply vessel, anchored offshore. Next, a road had to be hacked out of the island with picks and shovels to reach the construction site, situated at an elevation of 305 feet. Almost half of the laborers quit due to the backbreaking work required to transport supplies to the island’s summit over the rugged road. Fearing he would lose his entire crew, the engineer in charge ordered a shipment of pack animals from his superiors in San Juan. Five donkeys arrived the next week and provided great relief to the workers.

When work on the stone edifice began, the laborers threatened to abandon their work if not supplied with shoes to protect their feet from the burning effect of the hydraulic lime used in the plaster. Shoes were soon provided for the men, but the donkeys’ hooves were showing signs of irritation. Having grown attached to the donkeys, the men would wash the animals’ hooves each night with some of their precious allotment of fresh water.

The plans for Culebrita Lighthouse called for a unique T-shaped stone structure with the thirty-seven-foot-tall tower being centered along the vertical portion of the ‘T’. The bottom portion of the ‘T’ was an oil room and storeroom, and on the opposite side of the tower, a corridor led to a pair of identical keeper’s quarters, one on the left and one on the right. Each apartment consisted of three rooms measuring 10’ x 12’ and a kitchen/dining room measuring approximately 13’ x 15’.

The lantern room, accessed by a spiral stairway, housed a fourth-order lens in 1901, but by 1908 a third-and-a-half-order lens manufactured in France by Sautter, Lemonnier, & Cie had been installed. The focal plane of the light was 305 feet above high water. A door in the lantern room led outside to a cement gallery that was surrounded by a cast-iron balustrade.

Aerial view of Culebrita Lighthouse in 1978
Photograph courtesy Library of Congress
At the end of the Spanish-American War, Culebrita Lighthouse and all others in Puerto Rico fell under control of the United States. The fourth-quarter edition of Commerce Reports for 1916 noted that several employees of the United States Bureau of Lighthouses had recently been commended for “services rendered under circumstances which required the display of courage in the saving of lives or property.” Most of the keepers mentioned had rescued individuals from disabled boats, but one keeper was recognized for preventing the spread of a fire near his light station. The first entry in the list of commended keepers was the following:
Julio L. Rengel, keeper, and Vincente Garcia, assistant keeper, of Culebrita Island Light Station, P.R., for the energetic manner in which they worked during the prevalence of a hurricane which passed over the island of Culebrita October 9 and 10, 1916, to keep the light burning. The keeper and the assistant keeper filled the gap in the lantern left by broken glass with planks and blankets and replaced the broken glass during the day so as to avoid any interruption to the service of the light.
The estimated velocity of the wind during the hurricane was 125 miles an hour.

In 1920, Keeper Simeon Martin was commended for rescuing two men whose boat was wrecked on the reefs near Culebrita Island Light Station. A strong earthquake was felt at the lighthouse on August 1, 1927 and caused the light apparatus to oscillate but no damage was done.

In 1959 the U.S. Coast Guard sealed up the lighthouse with concrete blocks and cement. The U.S. Navy started using the lighthouse as an observation post during the latter part of the 1960s and maintained a presence on the small island until 1975, when the lighthouse was destaffed for the final time. The Coast Guard still maintains a solar powered light in the lantern room, but obviously does not perform much maintenance on the structure as evidenced by the entire lack of glass in the lantern room.

Culebrita Lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historical Monuments of the United States on October 22, 1981, but nothing is being done to preserve the deteriorating structure. Vandals and multiple hurricanes, such as Hugo in 1989 and Marilyn in 1995, have caused significant damage to the lighthouse. Doors, windows, and the cupola are missing, and part of the roof has collapsed.

The Culebra Foundation, founded in 1994, has formed a small museum on Culebra and is trying to spearhead a movement to save Culebrita Lighthouse, the only remaining Spanish-era structure in the Culebra archipelago. The lighthouse and the surrounding four acres of land were transferred from the General Services Administration to the Municipality of Culebra in 2002. According to the foundation, the local government appropriated over two million dollars for preserving the lighthouse, but disgracefully, the significant sum was mishandled and little has been done to save the historic structure. In 2015, Para la Naturaleza, a unit of the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico, announced that it would be collaborating with the Municipality of Culebra to restore and preserve the lighthouse.

Keepers:

  • Head: Francisco Cabanellas (1886 – ), Francisco Amador (at least 1901 – at least 1903), José Nieves Moraza (at least 1905 – at least 1909), Guillermo Morris (at least 1911 – at least 1915), Julio L. Rengel (at least 1916), Jose Escalera Velez (at least 1917 – 1918), Simeon Martin (1918 – 1929), Jose Ernesto Carrero (1929 – at least 1930), Cayetano Valie (1932 – 1933), Cayetano Valie (1934 – 1936), Jose Ernesto Carrero (at least 1940).
  • Assistant: Luis de Olmo (1886 – ), Arturo Castro (at least 1901), Robusitan Reguera (at least 1903 – at least 1907), Antonio S. Cuenca (at least 1908), Pablo Martinez (at least 1909), Teofilo Ruiz (at least 1911), Vincente Garcia (at least 1913 – at least 1919), Julio Renzel y Martinez (at least 1920), Jose R. Peralta (at least 1921), Pedro Albino Gonzalez (1924 – 1933), Octavio Segrada Rosado (1934 – 1936), Cayetano Valie (1936 – 1941).

Photo Gallery: 1 2 3

References

  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. “Isla Culebrita Light ,” Kevin Murphy, Historic American Engineering Record, August, 1984.
  3. The Lightkeeper’s Menagerie, Elinor De Wire, Pineapple Press, 2007.

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