What makes a lighthouse an iconic structure? These Florida lighthouses have witnessed wars, pirates, vandalism, erosion, hurricanes and even crashes into the sea — and all of them still stand to share fascinating snippets of maritime history. The following are a few of the most iconic Florida lighthouses that illuminate dark shorelines and help steer safe passage for travelers.
St. Augustine Light Station
When we think of quintessential lighthouses, we often think of black and white towers striped like a candy cane. That’s exactly what the St. Augustine Light Station looks like. But the fact that it’s iconic in appearance is only part of the reason this lighthouse is so famous. The city of St. Augustine itself has a deeply rooted history in maritime navigation, and its lighthouse was the very first established in Florida.
Archival maps and records suggest that Spanish settlers built the earliest form of the St. Augustine lighthouse in the 16th century. Residents improved the original structure several times until they realized it wouldn’t survive the test of time, due to the effects of shoreline erosion. In 1871, construction began on the new lighthouse, which was set further inland, resulting in a 165-feet-high building that was more than three times taller than its predecessor. The original lighthouse eventually crashed into the sea in 1880.
Garden Key Lighthouse
If you’re looking for interesting lighthouses, then the Garden Key Light is definitely one to add to your list. Located at Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park, this fascinating sight was once a safe haven for pirates. In fact, the archipelago was once a hotbed for swashbucklers and squatters, so it’s not surprising that the key’s structures served as pirate hangouts through the 1800s. The lighthouse is immortalized in “Jack Tier or the Florida Reef” by James Fenimore Cooper and in the short story “After the Storm” by Ernest Hemingway.
Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse
With over 80,000 visitors per year, the Ponce de Leon Light Station is one of the best-preserved lighthouses in the country. Towering over the buildings below at 175 feet high, it’s the tallest lighthouse in Florida and the second tallest in the United States. Perhaps what makes the Ponce de Leon both significant and beloved is the fact that it has been meticulously restored and maintained for nearly 200 years. It’s one of only a few 19th century lighthouses to have all of its original structures on the compound. And then, of course, there’s the fact that the structure is pretty hard to miss with its bright Venetian Red paint.
Hillsboro Inlet Light
The Hillsboro Inlet Light, located midway between Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton, has one of the most interesting lighthouse designs in the U.S. It features an octagonal, iron tower originally used by a Chicago steel firm during the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Amazingly, if you take a closer look at the Hillsboro lighthouse, you’ll see that it’s held together with bolts and no welds. Instead, the piping is secured by nearly 200 special cast iron joints. The skeletal exterior surrounds a cylindrical core painted black and white.
So how did such a unique lighthouse come to be? The tower traces its roots all the way back to 1907, when concerned citizens from the United States Lighthouse Board persuaded Congress to authorize construction in order to make the inlet safer for maritime travelers. The United States government purchased the steel structure — built by the Russell Wheel and Foundry of Detroit — from the World’s Fair to stabilize the light.
Jupiter, Florida residents turned on the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse for the first time in July of 1860, about nine years after President Franklin Pierce signed an order granting the funding for the project. Next to the lighthouse, the town added a weather bureau station and signal station for passing ships.
In 1936, the U.S. Navy acquired some of the land to operate a Radio Compass Station as an aid to navigation. But since all U.S. lighthouses were transferred to the Coast Guard in 1939, the Navy moved its station to another part of the land.
During World War II, the station detected German U-boats during the war and warned allied ships to help U.S. forces attack the enemy vessels. In all, they helped to destroy roughly 67 German submarines.
Bonus: Carrabelle Bottle Lighthouse
The coastal Panhandle town of Carrabelle boasts one of Florida’s most interesting oddities, which just so happens to be a lighthouse. Created by artist Leon Wiesener, the 15-foot-tall Bottle House is crafted from over 6,000 glass bottles. This lighthouse doesn’t serve as a beacon for maritime travelers, but instead as a stop-off for those in search of unconventional charm and artistic ingenuity. It stands at 604 S.E. Avenue F in Carrabelle.
For more insight about the most famous and fascinating light stations on America’s southern peninsula, check out “Florida Lighthouses” by John Hairr.