In 1802, a resolution of the Georgia General Assembly ceded jurisdiction of six acres on the southern tip of Cumberland Island to the U.S. Government for lighthouse purposes. At that time, this parcel was the southernmost site on the U.S. Atlantic coast, as Florida was back under Spanish rule, after the British left. It took eighteen years before Winslow Lewis built a lighthouse on Cumberland Island in 1820. In the interim, Congress had outlawed the importation of slaves in 1808. Given the proximity of Amelia Island to the Southern States, it soon became a major black market dealing in slaves and was home to scores of smugglers, drunkards, and prostitutes. The United States eventually stepped in and took control of the island in 1819, and in 1821 Spain officially ceded Florida to the United States.
Perhaps if the U.S. had gained control of Florida before construction of Cumberland Lighthouse began, the tower might have been placed on Amelia Island. Instead, the lighthouse stood across the border, guiding vessels into St. Mary’s River and along the Atlantic Coast. Changes in the channel made it so the light on Cumberland Island could no longer be seen when entering the river, and on July 7, 1838, Congress provided $7,500 for relocating the tower. Cumberland Lighthouse was accordingly dismantled brick by brick, shipped across the river, and reconstructed atop the highest spot on Amelia Island. Keeper Amos Latham, who had replaced Robert Church, the first keeper of Cumberland Island Lighthouse, in 1829, followed the lighthouse across the river and served as the first keeper of Amelia Island Lighthouse until his death in 1842. Winslow Lewis returned to the area to oversee the relocation of the tower he had built eighteen years earlier.
The light source for the tower consisted of a collection of fourteen lamps, backed by reflectors, which revolved to produce a flashing characteristic. Though the tower is just sixty-four feet tall, the light has a focal plane of 107 feet thanks to the prominence on which it stands. Amos Latham followed the lighthouse across the river and served as its first keeper at its new location.
Some mariners were not pleased with the location of the lighthouse on Amelia Island, and in 1848, three pilots for crossing the St. Mary’s River bar submitted the following report:
[T]he present light-house, where it now stands, is at least four miles south of the entrance and bar above mentioned, and, therefore, entirely useless, and in many instances injurious to vessels coming from the north, as they generally make for the light and fall to leeward. …[T]he proper site for a light-house for the entrance of this bar is, and always was, the extreme northeast end of Amelia island.
David Levy Yull, who became Florida’s first Senator in 1845, led a push to build a cross-state railroad spanning the 155 miles between Fernandina Beach on the Atlantic and Cedar Keys on the Gulf. Completed in 1861, the railroad took eight years to build and allowed goods to be shipped between New York and New Orleans without having to round the Florida Keys with their dangerous reefs and shoals. Before the railroad could have much impact on the local economy, both it and the lighthouse were taken out of service by the Civil War.
Spared from wartime damage, the tower quickly returned to service after the conflict. One of the keepers in the post-war era was Dewayne W. Suydam, one of about twenty head keepers who, over the years, were responsible for climbing the tower’s sixty-nine granite steps to tend the light. Each keeper recorded the weather and other observations of interest in the station’s logbook. Keeper Suydam wrote an entry the day he gave up tobacco, and when he retired in 1891 at the age of sixty-three, he penned: “20 years ago I commenced in the Light House Service; have been absent but one night during that time” – talk about having no vacation time.
Work on a set of range lights, known as Amelia Island North Range Beacons, began in December 1871 and was finished the following May. The range’s rear light was displayed from a short square tower mounted atop the pitched roof of a two-and-a-half-story keeper’s dwelling, while the front light was displayed from a square window in the enclosed portion of a square, frame tower. The range lights were activated on June 1, 1872 and served in their original configuration until March 1880, when an iron tower that had held the beacon that ranged with Amelia Island Lighthouse was mounted atop a wooden base and used to replace the rear light of the North Range.
John Miles, an African American, served as keeper of Amelia Island North Range from 1880 to 1895. In 1887, Keeper Miles wrote the following letter to A.A. Marks, the world’s largest manufacturer of artificial limbs at the time:
Permit me to say that your artificial leg with rubber foot attached, which I have been continuously using since September, 1886, is all that you have claimed for it.The North Range was discontinued in 1899.
I have but seven inches of thigh stump. My occupation is U.S. Light House Keeper, North Beacon Ranges, Amelia Island, Fla., and I have to go up and down in one of the ranges 45 feet high, on iron-rod steps, at least twice a day; so I have good reason to say your limbs are all you claim for them.
The first dwelling for the keeper at Amelia Island Lighthouse was a very small brick house. This was replaced by a two-story residence that stood northwest of the tower. A third dwelling, a square, one story structure with a hipped roof, was built southeast of the lighthouse in 1886 and the previous residence was sold to the highest bidder and removed. Unfortunately, none of the historic dwellings remain standing. In the early 1960s, the Coast Guard tore down the latest incarnation of the keeper's dwelling and replaced it with the present structure that is completely devoid of the charm possessed by the earlier dwellings.
Thomas P. O’Hagan retired as keeper of Amelia Island Lighthouse on June 30, 1925 at the age of sixty-six. He started his lighthouse career at Fort Ripley Shoal Lighthouse in Charleston, South Carolina, and later served at Georgetown Lighthouse and Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse, before arriving at Amelia Island in 1905. Upon his retirement, the Lighthouse Service noted that he was “held in esteem by the officers in charge of the district.”
Electricity reached the tower in the 1930s, which allowed the station to be automated in 1970 and its final Coast Guard keeper, Otho O. Brown, to retire. Following automation, the Coast Guard Auxiliary was responsible for the lighthouse and held CPR and boating safety classes at the station.
Under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, Amelia Island Lighthouse was declared surplus and offered to Fernandina Beach. In a ceremony held on March 28, 2001, the lighthouse was officially handed over to the city. In 2002, the city received a $350,000 grant from the Florida Division of Historical Resources, enabling Worth Contracting, Inc. to complete restoration work on the tower in 2004. During the project, the iron walkway around the lantern room was replaced along with at least one of the supporting brackets. At the time of my visit, the replaced pieces were being stored in the oil house, which has since be restored.
As the property is bordered by private homes, providing public access to the lighthouse is problematic. After weighing various options, the town decided to offer two “fee-based” public tours each month, wherein the participants will be bused to the site. The Coast Guard Auxiliary still maintains the lighthouse, which is the oldest standing lighthouse in Florida.