If you’ve been to St. Augustine at night – walked along the coast to take in the sharp tang of brine and the close sound of ocean waves colliding with the shore – you probably have seen a light in the distance, revolving in mechanical circles as it sweeps over the dark water below. A beacon to the boaters coming through the Matanzas River.
Like many structures in history, the St. Augustine Lighthouse has worn a plethora of faces over the centuries- swapping hands and changing roles, being built, rebuilt, and built again. Its position, though, at the north end of Anastasia Island, has remained a steady constant through it all.
Records of its existence go back as far as the 1500s, in a map created by the Italian cartographer Baptista Boazio. Detailing the raid of Sir Francis Drake on St. Augustine in 1586, the map, published a mere three years later, is the first documented archival reference of the St. Augustine Lighthouse. Though back in 1589, the lighthouse we know today was instead a wooden watchtower, erected by the Spanish crown in order to spot enemy ships. A far cry from the light we now have, which is used to lead ships into port.
We do not notice any changes in the watchtower until the 1700s. In 1764, a French chart, Plan du Port de St. Augustine, dans la Floridie was created by Jacques-Nicolas Bellin, the Official Hydrographer of the French King. The lighthouse was designated as a ‘balise,’ which is the French word for ‘signal’ or ‘mark.’ This changed the role of the watchtower from that of a coastal guard scrutinizing the horizon for foreigners to now acting as a staple of the land, used to guide the ships coming through the channel.
Over the past few centuries, the watchtower at the north end of Anastasia Island has gone through many cosmetic changes, having height added to the structure as well as coquina to mingle and replace the original wood. While the outside changed, through it all, what would one day be the St. Augustine Lighthouse was still referred to as a watchtower. In 1780, a map by Captain Joseph Frederick Wallet des Barres titled A Plan of the Harbour of St. Augustin in the province of Georgia had a ‘Light Houfe’ recorded on Anastasia Island.
By 1870, beach erosion threatened St. Augustine’s lighthouse, so the U.S. Lighthouse Service constructed a new tower. The old structure fell into the sea in 1880, but continued to serve as a landmark. In 1882 and 1887, Captain W. M. Black identified both the “L.H.” and the “old L.H.” as the coastline changes in his surveys of St. Augustine Harbor for the U.S. Corps. of Engineers.
For the rest of the St. Augustine Lighthouse’s story, examine additional maps of St. Augustine at UF George A. Smathers Libraries‘ Florida Map Collection available on ufdc.ufl.edu.
GUEST AUTHOR: Mikayla Martin, Governor’s House Library Volunteer