Lighthouse Friends Home Page
 St. Johns River, FL    
Description: St. Johns River is Florida’s longest, snaking over 310 miles from the swamps of central Florida to the Atlantic Ocean. The total drop of the river from its source to its mouth is less than thirty feet, or about an inch per mile, making it one of the “laziest” rivers in the world. Another of the river’s unique features is that it flows north, one of just a few rivers in the United States that does.

This interesting river attracted settlers early on, and for a time, each group would bestow a new name on the river. The Timucuan Indians called it Welaka, meaning river of lakes. The French named it Rivičre de Mai, River of May, since they arrived on May 1. The Spanish have called it Rio de Corrientes (River of Currents) and San Mateo, but it was finally renamed Rio de San Juan, after the mission San Juan del Puerto was established near the mouth of the river in 1587. The name Rio de San Juan was later Anglicized to St. John’s and then St. Johns. St. Johns River continues to be a vital waterway with huge Naval ships entering the river bound for Naval Station Mayport, and cargo containers heading farther upstream to Jacksonville, Florida’s second largest port.

Second of three St. Johns River Lighthouses
Photograph courtesy State Archives of Florida
The river has had almost as many lighthouses as names. The first lighthouse was built in 1830 near the river’s mouth, where the present south jetty is located. Congress provided $10,550 for the tower, which was a large expenditure in what was then the Territory of Florida. To make it worse, the new tower didn’t even survive to see Florida attain statehood. By 1835, the encroaching sea had undermined the lighthouse, and it was torn down and replaced by a second lighthouse.

Following a Congressional appropriation of $10,550 on June 30, 1834, the second tower was constructed roughly a mile inland where it was thought to be safe from erosion. This, however, was not the case. Over time, the shifting river threatened the lighthouse, and sand dunes had nearly buried the dwelling. Congress allocated $10,000 on August 31, 1852 for preserving the site of the lighthouse, and roughly $1,800 of this amount was spent before it was decided to build yet another tower. To fund the construction of the third lighthouse and a companion beacon light to form a range for crossing the river's bar, Congress provided $15,000 on August 3, 1854 to be used along with the balance of the 1852 appropriation.

Title for a new site could not be secured until 1857, and work on the tower, which was located over a mile inland, was carried out during the winter of 1857-1858. The new lighthouse was built of brick, stood seventy-four feet tall, and exhibited the light from its fixed, third-order Fresnel lens for the first time on January 1, 1859.

The new lighthouse had been in operation for just over two years, when the Civil War broke out. Unlike many southern lighthouses, St. Johns River Light operated during a good portion of the war, until a Confederate sympathizer, some say the light's keeper, shot it out in 1864. The lighthouse remained inactive for the remainder of the war, and was finally outfitted with a new third-order Fresnel lens and relit on July 4, 1867.

Keeper August Brown provided the following report of how the earthquake that struck Charleston, South Carolina on August 31, 1886 was felt at St. Johns River Lighthouse.

The motion continued about fifteen seconds, accompanied by a rumbling noise like that made by a side-wheel steamer. Five distinct shocks were felt. The first was moderate, the second and third light, and the fourth and fifth were very light. The first shock commenced with a tremor and ended with a jar. The other shocks seemed like waves coming from the southeast.

In 1890, a brick oil house, measuring nine by eleven feet and capable of holding 450 five-gallon oil cans, was built near the lighthouse, and 1,200 linear feet of new iron-wire fence were placed on the north and west sides of the reservation.

To help keepers mind their lights, the Lighthouse Service installed alarm bells at several stations. If the temperature in the lantern room deviated too much from the normal operating range, a bell was sounded to alert the keeper that the light had gone out or that there was too much fire. In a report dated May 4, 1915, Keeper Amos Buford of the St. Johns River Lighthouse wrote:

I was awakened at 3:15 this a.m. by the call of the thermostat bell. When I got up to the light I found the lamp enveloped in flames, caused by the lamp becoming overheated. I extinguished the light and changed the vaporizer and the heating tube, and had the light relit at 3:35 a.m. I had no further trouble for the remainder of the night.
Keeper Buford was awakened by the thermostat bell again at 4:45 a.m. on December 22, 1917. This time the light had gone out due to a clogged vaporizer nozzle, and Keeper Buford had to use his substitute light.

In 1887, the Lighthouse Board proposed using an iron superstructure to raise the light at St. Johns River by fifteen feet, so it could be seen above trees on adjacent islands, but this addition was not made when it was found that settlements on the island were steadily clearing away the obstructions. As jetties were being built that would effectively move the river's entrance farther from the lighthouse, the Lighthouse Board revisited the need for a taller lighthouse to mark the river just a few years later. The Board proposed building a lighthouse atop Mount Cornelia, a hill on the north side of the river with an elevation of sixty-two feet, reasoning that a first-order light with a focal plane of 200 feet in that location would overlap with St. Augustine Lighthouse to the south and Little Cumberland Lighthouse to the north, allowing Amelia Island Lighthouse to be discontinued. After requesting $125,000 for this light annually between 1889 and 1894, the Board brought the matter up again in 1901, but this lofty tower, whose light would have been second only on the Atlantic Coast to that at Navesink, New Jersey, was never built.

Instead, in 1928, a semiautomatic radiobeacon was established at St. Johns River in 1928, and in 1929, the lightship Brunswick, stationed off Brunswick, Georgia, was renamed St. Johns and reassigned to a position roughly seven miles offshore from St. Johns River. The lighthouse continued to operate for a few months after the lightship was placed on station, but when the lighthouse proved redundant, it was discontinued on May 5, 1930.

Current St. Johns River Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy State Archives of Florida
Since the lighthouse has been out of commission for so many years, it is a wonder it has survived, especially with the runway of Mayport Naval Station just feet away. In the 1940s, fill material from Ribault Bay was brought in to construct the runway. Twelve feet of fill were placed around the lighthouse, completely burying the original door and forcing what was previously an elevated window to be used as the new entrance.

The future of the lighthouse has been the center of much debate. Some leaders envision the lighthouse now guiding tourists, instead of ships, into the area, but with the lighthouse standing on Naval property behind a chain-link fence, providing public access is difficult. A study was commissioned to determine the cost of moving the lighthouse to Mayport's river front. The answer: $657,600. Wouldn’t it just be a lot easier and cheaper to move the fence?

A plaque on the tower records that the City of Jacksonville and Jacksonville Historic Landmarks Commission presented a preservation ward on May 12, 1983 for the rehabilitation of the lighthouse. A second plaque affixed to the lighthouse shows that the lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. The Navy and Mayport Lighthouse Association are working together to protect, restore, and interpret the lighthouse.

Head Keepers: William Livingstone (1830 – 1831), Roque Leonardy (1831 – 1835), John Warren (1835 – at least 1838), Henry Maxey, Matthew H. Philips, William H. Huston, George C. Acosta (1842 – 1849), Joshua Fennimore (1849 – 1853), William M. Hagin (1853 – 1858), John Daniels (1858 – 1870), John R. Hogans (1870), Eli Haworth (1870 – 1871), Alexander McDonald (1871 – 1879), Augustus W. Brown (1879 – 1890), Joseph Champagne (1890 – 1891), Charles W. Grimm (1891 – 1892), Amos B. Buford (1892 – at least 1921), Charles L. Sisson (1926 – 1930).

References

  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. Lighthouse Service Bulletin, various years.
  3. Annual Report of the Commissioner of Lighthouses, various years.
  4. Florida Lighthouses, Kevin McCarthy, 1990.

Location: Located inside Naval Station Mayport on the west side of the runway near Mayport and the ferry crossing.
Latitude: 30.39355
Longitude: -81.42599

For a larger map of St. Johns River Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: The St. Johns River Lighthouse is best viewed from inside Naval Station Mayport. Since 9/11, access to the base is typically limited to those with a military ID or with a sponsor on the base. You can contact the base public affairs officer to determine if access to the base is possible.

A decent view from outside the base can be had from the town of Mayport near the St. Johns River Ferry. From A1A just south of the ferry, go east on Palmer Street until it ends, and you can view the lighthouse through a chain-link fence.

The lighthouse is owned by Naval Station Mayport. Grounds open by permission of Navy, tower closed.

Find the closest hotels to St. Johns River Lighthouse

See our List of Lighthouses in Florida

The lighthouses The Maps Our friends Lighthouse Resources Lighthouse Events Lighthouse Store Lighthouse Posters
Copyright © 2001- Lighthousefriends.com
Send us an e-mail - please note that lighthousefriends.com is not affiliated with any lighthouse

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