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 Ponce de Leon Inlet, FL    
Lighthouse accessible by car and a short, easy walk.Lighthouse open for climbing.Interior open or museum on site.Fee charged.Photogenic lighthouse or setting.Active Fresnel Lens
Description: Author Stephen Crane published his Civil War masterpiece The Red Badge of Courage in 1895, three decades after the conclusion of this divisive conflict. In 1896, an editor provided Crane an opportunity to experience battle firsthand by covering the budding rebellion in Cuba. While en route to the island aboard the 123-foot S. S. Commodore, which was carrying a load of firearms, Crane was shipwrecked off the Floridian Coast near Daytona Beach during a gale. Abandoning the sinking vessel, Crane, the captain, and two sailors, set out in a small lifeboat. Providently, the lighthouse at Mosquito Inlet marked the distant coast for the hapless quartet, but the group still had to endure twenty-seven hours of frantic rowing and frequent bailing before they were able to bring their craft safely to shore. Crane’s story on the Cuban conflict would have to wait, but the harrowing hours spent in the lifeboat provided an alternate firsthand experience that would develop into his most successful short story “The Open Boat.”

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Stephen Crane and his companions were certainly not the first to be served by Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse, and the tower whose beacon they saw was not the first to stand over the area. Mosquito Inlet served as the exit point for two rivers: the Halifax River to the north and the Hillsborough River, later named the Indian River, to the south, and several plantations in the area relied on the inlet to carry their cotton, rice, and oranges to distant ports. In 1830, William DePeyster authored a petition to Congress signed by thirty-eight other plantation and ship owners from Mosquito County relating that they “were suffering in considerable privations, and difficulties, in the trade to this quarter in consequence of there being no Light House at Mosquito Inlet.” Congress responded with $11,000 in June 1834 for a lighthouse on the southern side of the inlet, and on October 31 of that year Winslow Lewis was awarded the contract for its construction. A forty-five-foot, conical, brick tower and a dwelling were hastily completed by the end of February 1835 at a cost of $7,494. The first keeper assigned to the station was William H. Williams who received an annual stipend of $450.

Keeper Williams didn’t have much work to do, for the government had failed to provide oil for the eleven lamps in his lantern room. During a violent storm in October 1835, the dwelling was washed into the inlet and the foundation of the tower was undercut. Soon thereafter, the station also suffered the effects of the Second Seminole Indian War when a raiding party visited New Smyrna and ravaged the lighthouse. It is reported that Chief Coacoochee procured one of the reflectors from the lantern and used it in his headdress during the Battle of Dunn Lawton fought near the lighthouse. This is unlikely, as the reflectors were swept out to sea in the October storm, but the Seminole leader might have found a reflector that had washed up on a nearby shore. Repair work on the crippled tower was not possible during this time due to the troubled relations with the Native Americans, and the lighthouse eventually collapsed in April 1836. Congress appropriated $7,000 on March 3, 1837 to rebuild the lighthouse on a new site, but this sum reverted to the treasury in 1839.

The Florida legislature sent a resolution to Congress on February 8, 1847 requesting a new lighthouse for Mosquito Inlet. This request, however, was not acted upon, and the matter would not be revisited until after the Civil War. The Lighthouse Board’s annual report of 1870 stated that the level of commerce passing through Mosquito Inlet did not by itself justify a major light, but since the inlet was positioned roughly at the center of the 100-mile stretch of unlit coastline between the lights at St. Augustine and Cape Canaveral, a lighthouse at the inlet that would serve as both a coastal and a harbor light was merited. The board’s request that year for $60,000 to commence the construction of the lighthouse went unfunded.

The Lighthouse Board repeated its request for a lighthouse at Mosquito Inlet each of the next four years to no avail. In 1882, the request was renewed, but now the estimated construction cost had risen to $200,000. Congress finally relented, but it did not supply the funding in one lump sum. Rather, payments were painfully strung out over the next five years, hampering work on the light station.

A site for the lighthouse was selected on the north side of the inlet to prevent the southward-moving inlet from claiming a second tower. General Orville E. Babcock, chief engineer of the fifth and sixth lighthouse districts, was to oversee construction of the lighthouse but tragically, on June 2, 1884, the vessel transporting Babcock to shore overturned in the breakers at the bar, and he drowned in the inlet along with two other men.

Jared Smith assumed responsibility in Babcock’s stead, and work on the project soon commenced. Over a million bricks would be used to construct the lighthouse, which slowly grew to its preordained height of 175 feet, six-and-a-half inches from the ground to the tip of the lightning rod. The only taller brick lighthouse in the country is Cape Hatteras. A brick foundation, extending twelve feet below ground, supports the massive tower which consists of an inner and outer wall connected by spoke-like interstitial walls. The outer wall tapers as it rises, while the inner wall maintains a constant twelve-foot diameter, leaving room for the 194-step, circular stairway.

First-order Fresnel lens used in Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse
Originally, a multi-family residence was considered for the station, but instead, separate dwellings were built for the head keeper and the two assistants to afford them more privacy. The station is beautifully laid out in the shape of a cross, with the head keeper’s dwelling built at the end of a brick walkway directly east of the lighthouse, with the first and second assistant keeper dwellings are symmetrically positioned north and south of the walkway. The largest dwelling is a square structure with a chimney rising from the center of a double-hipped roof, and, of course, it belonged to the principal keeper. The identical assistant keeper’s dwellings are rectangular with chimneys at each end of the pitched roofs. A brick woodshed with attached privy was built behind each of the dwellings, and a large storage building was provided for the station's oil.

When the tower was completed, a first-order Fresnel lens, constructed in 1867 by the Parisian firm of Barbier and Fenestre, was assembled in the lantern room. The lens was somewhat unique in that the landward side of the lens was composed of three concave reflecting panels. The light was exhibited for the first time on November 1, 1887, by head keeper William Rowlinski, who had most recently served as first assistant keeper at Cape Romain Lighthouse in South Carolina.

Rowlinski served at Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse for just over six years, and even with the separation provided by the detached residences, he still did not get along with some of his assistant keepers. The disputes escalated to the point that the Lighthouse Board swapped Rowlinski with the head keeper at Georgetown, South Carolina. Thomas Patrick O'Hagan thus became the second head keeper at Mosquito Inlet in 1893, arriving at the station with his wife and four kids. When he was transferred to Amelia Island twelve years later, his posterity numbered eleven.

Though accurate, the name Mosquito Inlet proved a deterrent to increased settlement in the area. To correct this problem, the name was officially changed to Ponce de Leon Inlet in honor of the famed explorer, and the lighthouse became the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse.

In 1896, lightning struck the lighthouse, destroying the electric call apparatus used for summoning the relief keeper. Two years later, the main gallery outside the lantern room was rigged with a spar and halyards, and the keepers were supplied with signal books, a set of international code flags, and a pair of marine glasses so they could communicated with offshore vessels.

John Lindquist, who served as head keeper from 1905 to 1924, received the lighthouse efficiency pennant for three consecutive years for having the model station in the district. Keeper Lindquist was also recognized for providing assistance to the crews of disabled or wrecked vessels near the station on at least three occasions.

Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse was electrified in 1933, and the first-order Fresnel lens was replaced by a third-order lens relocated from the discontinued Sapelo Lighthouse in Georgia. This new lens rotated producing six flashes in a fifteen second period followed by a fifteen-second eclipse. The Coast Guard assumed responsibility for Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse in 1939 and kept a crew at the station until the lighthouse was fully automated in 1953.

After automation, the station dwellings sat unoccupied until the Town of Ponce Inlet was incorporated in 1963 and began using one of the assistant keeper’s dwellings as a town hall. The Coast Guard abandoned the lighthouse in 1970 in favor a steel skeletal light tower located at their station on the south side of the inlet. At the urging of concerned residents, the Town took over the deed to the property, and the citizens formed the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse Preservation Association to manage the facility.

The third-order lens was removed from the tower in 1971 and shipped to the Coast Guard Academy Museum in New London, Connecticut, but after a museum was established at Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse, the lens was returned for display in 1973. When a newly constructed high-rise condominium obscured the light at the Coast Guard station in 1982, Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse was outfitted with a modern optic and reactivated.

Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse is one of the finest light stations in the United States and merits an extended visit. The dwellings now house exhibits on the lighthouse keepers and families. Even the modern redbrick gift shop is historically significant as it was constructed using the plans for the multi-family dwelling that was never built. A lens exhibit building was constructed on-site in 1995 and now houses the revolving first-order lens from Cape Canaveral Lighthouse. In 2003, the fixed first-order lens originally used in the Ponce de Leon Lighthouse was also placed on display, after it was returned by Mystic Seaport. Two smaller replica lenses are also on display along with other acquired lenses.

The station’s historical value continues to grow thanks to the tireless efforts of the preservation association. The third-order Fresnel lens was placed back in the lantern room in 2004, providing the public a rare chance to see an active, revolving, Fresnel lens. The lighthouse’s connection to the past was further strengthened when the wreck of the S.S. Commodore, which had carried Stephen Crane, was located and artifacts retrieved from the wreckage were placed on display at the station. (They were removed in 2007.) The lighthouse serves today as a Private Aid to Navigation, maintained by the museum's staff.

Head Keepers: William H. Williams (1835 – 1836), William R. Rowlinski (1887 – 1893), Thomas P. O’Hagan (1893 – 1905), John Lindquist (1905 – 1924), Charles Leslie Sisson (1924 – 1926), John B. Butler (1926 – 1937), Edward Lockwood Meyer (1937 – 1943).

Photo Gallery: 1 2 3

References

  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. Annual Report of the Commissioner of Lighthouses, various years.
  3. Ponce de Leon Inlet Light Station website.

Location: The Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse is located at 4931 S. Peninsula Dr., Ponce Inlet, FL at the end of the peninsula, south of Daytona Beach.
Latitude: 29.08063
Longitude: -80.92806

For a larger map of Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: From Interstate 95, take exit 256 and go east on Dunlawton Avenue for 3.8 miles to the intersection with Highway 1. Take the bridge across the Halifax River. At the second traffic light, turn right on Atlantic Avenue and drive south for 5.3 miles to the four-way stop at Beach Street. Turn right on Beach Street and then left on Peninsula Drive. After two blocks, the entrance to the Ponce de Leon Lighthouse will be on your left.

The light station is open daily between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. from Labor Day until Memorial Day, and between 10 a.m. and 9 p.m. the rest of the year, with closings on Christmas Day and Thanksgiving Day. The lighthouse can be reached at (386) 761-1821.

The lighthouse is owned by the Town of Ponce Inlet and managed by the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse Preservation Association. Grounds/dwellings/tower open.

Find the closest hotels to Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
Does anyone else think that the big rigs zipping along the interstates in Florida drive a bit recklessly? Maybe they were just caught up in the spirit of the Daytona 500, which occurred the weekend we visited the area. Our flights to and from Florida had several racing fans on board, and we had to pay dearly for a rental car and a hotel during the trip due to the increase in demand. There was one bright spot amongst all the Daytona traffic - we spotted a cute bumper sticker affixed to a car on I-95 that made us laugh: "I'm not speeding. I'm qualifying."

There is a neat quote on the sign at the entrance to the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse taken from the 1868 Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board: "Nothing indicates the liberality, prosperity, or intelligence of a nation more clearly than the facilities which it affords for the safe approach of mariners to its shores."

Marilyn writes:
If you are looking for the "complete" lighthouse experience, this is the one to visit and a top ten favorite for sure. Not only do you get to climb the tower that has a tremendous view, the grounds contain a complex of buildings that have amazing information and displays; especially the lens building. This is a place where you can spend hours and on a day with a blue sky, your pictures will never look better.

An informational sign on one of the landings in the Ponce de Leon Lighthouse tells that Keeper Joseph B. Davis had a heart attack and died while climbing the stairs to light the lamp in 1919. When the light failed to come on, another keeper went to investigate and found Davis' body. The climb up the tower can be quite strenuous so be sure and take some time on the landings.


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Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.