Florida's Tallest Lighthouses

by CruiseReady

The highest and tallest lighthouses in the state of Florida, where they are, how to see them, and some fascinating facts about them.

The Tallest Lighthouses in the Sunshine State!

The state of Florida has more miles of coastline than any other state except Alaska. And with an extensive coastline comes the need for lighthouses. Florida has those, too, each special in its own way. On this page, you'll find out which of these Sunshine State landmarks is the highest, which are the tallest, and which one is not so tall, but still tallest.

Three of the five light stations featured here are open to visitors. The other two simply aren't terribly accessible, but you can get decent views of them, and I'll tell you how.

Aside from how to visit these five wonderful pieces of history, you'll also learn about how one of them was part pf a short story by the famous author, Stephen Crane; which had a bit of a run-in with some wildlife, which one sits on a submerged island, and which one will cost you at least $170.00 just to look at from a distance.

Enjoy these little vignettes about the Pensacola Light Station, the Ponce de Leon Light, the Saint Augustine Lighthouse, the Dry Tortugas Light, and the Screw-Pile structure on Sombrero Key.

The Pensacola Light Station

Shines the Highest

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APensacola_FL_lighthouse_sq_pano02.jpg

Image Source 

 

 Tower Height: 150'

Elevation of Beacon: 190' above sea level

The Pensacola Light does not have the tallest tower in the state.  (That distinction belongs to the Ponce Inlet Light.) But it is the highest, owing to the fact that it sits atop a forty foot bluff.   Add those forty feet to the 150' height of the tower, and you have a beacon that shines at an elevation of 190 feet above sea level, making this light the state's highest. 

The current tower, first lit in 1859, is actually Pensacola's second tower, and its third lighthouse.  The first wasn't a tower, but a lightship named the Aurora Borealis, which served from 1823, until the first tower was built in 1825. In 1858, it was decided that, because the beacon from the 40' lighthouse wasn't always visible, it should be relocated from the south to the north side of the bay.   So it was, that the structure that we see there today began operation on New Year's Day in 1859.  

With some exception, notably for a time during the civil war, the tower has remained lit with one type of light or another, providing safe guidance to mariners, right through until today.

This lighthouse has a well documented history, with some very interesting times. Here are several of the highlights:

  • In 1885, the lantern was damaged by wild ducks flying through the lens room.
  • For a time during World War II, the keepers had to live elsewhere, because Coast Guard personnel used their quarters as a lookout, watching for German U boats in Pensacola Harbor.
  • When the beacon was automated in 1965, the U.S. Navy picked up some pocket money by renting out rooms in the keepers quarters.

To see more, visit the Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum's Time Line Page, where you'll find beautifully done and fun to read of highlights in the lighthouse's history, blended chronologically with important world and national events.  It's well worth a few minutes of your time, and a great educational resource, too!

See It For Yourself

The Pensacola Light Welcomes Visitors

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pensacola_FL_lighthouse_sq_pano01.jpgThe Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum is located on the grounds of the Naval Air Station, Pensacola.

Hours of operation are from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm Monday through Saturday, and Noon until 5:30 pm on Sundays, with extended hours in the summer and on holidays.

Admission is $6.00 for adults.  If you're under 12, or over 64, or are on active military duty, you get a $2.00 discount.

Special guided tours, available by reservation, are:

  • Blue Angels Practice
  • Toast of the Top Sunset Tour
  • Ghost Hunt 

Image: Photo by Ebyabe, CC

Get a Lighthouse for Your House!

Pensacola Magnet or Ponce Inlet Print

Ponce de Leon Lighthouse

The Tallest Lighthouse Tower in Florida

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APonce_de_Leon_Inlet_Lighthouse-Florida.jpg

Image source

Tower Height: 175'

Its tower is the tallest lighthouse tower in the sunshine state, and the third tallest in the nation.  It's designated as a National Historic Landmark.  It's the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse, often referred to as the Ponce Inlet Light.

But that wasn't always its name.  When first lit, in November of 1887, it was called the Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse, and sailors could see its kerosene powered beacon from 20 miles away.  In 1927, enterprising souls developing the area concluded that a place named after an annoying insect might not sound very enticing to potential visitors and buyers.  So, they changed the name of the inlet and surrounding area to the historically significant and more high minded sounding Ponce de Leon, and the beacon's name changed with it.

Like with most historic beacons, the source of the light changed over time. In 1909, an incandescent oil vapor  lamp was installed.  In 1933, electricity came to the tower, along with a new 3rd order Fresnel lens that was equipped to revolve and flash.  This eliminated the need for both a head keeper and assistant keeper. But, one assistant was retained as a 'relief' keeper. 

Finally, automation eliminated the need for any full time keepers at all.  That was in 1953.  Sadly, the property was abandoned in 1970, and vandalism began to take its toll.

But, there's a happy ending here.  After a public outcry, the city of Ponce Inlet took over the light station property, and a newly formed  Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse Preservation Association undertook the task of restoration.

Today, under the protection of the preservation organization the Ponce de Leon Inlight Lighthouse and Museum still operates as a mariners' beacon, and is considered one of the finest and most well preserved lighthouse examples in the United States. 

Four Men in an Open Boat

Took Comfort in Seeing This Lighthouse

If one of your reading assignments in high school included Stephen Crane's famous short story The Open Boat, you read about  the Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse, which is mentioned seven times in the story, but only once by name.  Here's an excerpt:

 

The captain, rearing cautiously in the bow, after the dingey soared on a great swell, said that he had seen the light-house at Mosquito Inlet. Presently the cook remarked that he had seen it.

And that story is for real.  Crane was aboard the SS Commodore, which wrecked off the Florida coast in January, 1897.  He and three others spent 30 miserable hours in a 10 foot dinghy before making it to shore.  The short story is based on that true life experience.

If you missed out on it in school, you can read The Open Boat on line.

Open to the Public

Visit the Ponce Inlet Light

 

Still functioning as a private aid to navigation, you can climb the tower, where you'll be treated to a magnificent view of the Florida coastline from Daytona southward towards New Smyrna Beach and Cape Canaveral.  

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APonce_Inlet_Lighthouse_01.jpg

Stroll the grounds and browse the restored keepers quarters, find fascinating exhibits on the history of lighthouses, Fresnel lens exhibits, and even some Florida history. Explore the oil storage building, pump house, and boatyard... even the privy exhibit. There's a gift shop for souvenir hounds, too!

WHEN YOU CAN GO

Visit any day of the year, except Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.

Hours are 10 am to 6 pm from around Labor Day through Memorial Day, and 10 am to 9 pm the rest of the year. (Last admission time is one hour prior to closing.)

HOW TO GET THERE

Ponce Inlet is about ten miles south of Daytona Beach, Florida.  The preservation association's website gives detailed directions to get there from the north, south, or from Orlando.

ADMISSION

The price of admission is $5.00 for adults and $1.50 for children ages 2 through 11. 

Image source

St. Augustine Light

Florida's Second Tallest Lighthouse, in the Nations Oldest City

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASt_Augustine_Lighthouse_January_2013.JPG

St. Augustine Lignt, Image courtesy James Francis

Tower Height: 165'

Some 65 miles to the north of the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse, in a city that has been inhabited since 1565, stands the  St. Augustine Light, second highest in Florida, and still an active aid to private navigation. (As well as a center for research & education, and a NOAA weather station.) 

You can visit it between the hours of 9:00 am and 6:00 pm daily, except Christmas and Thanksgiving.  You can climb the tower, and do a self guided tour.  Special tours are also available, including guided paranormal, 'lost ship' archeology, and sunset tours.

I've written a little about the St. Augustine light, it's history, how it was almost lost, and the happy ending that allows us to enjoy it today.  There, you find not only information about the light, but also several throw pillows with the iconic beacon on them.  

 

Dry Tortugas Light

Is Number Three in Height

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADry_Tortugas_Light_FL1.jpg

Dry Tortugas Light, seen from Ft. Jefferson Image by Acroterion

Tower Height: 157'

You'll have to sail waaaay down south, into the Dry Tortugas, to find number three on the tallest towers list. It's about 70 miles west of Key West, on tiny Loggerhead Key, which is less than a quarter of a mile wide and not quite three quarters of a mile long.

The beacon was first lit in 1858, with a 1st Order Fresnel Lens, after nearly two years of construction. Since it's in such a remote location, it had to be built strong and tough.  The walls at the base are six feet thick, and they're four feet thick at the top.  The Dry Tortugas have no source of fresh water, so building cisterns to collect rainwater was an absolute necessity, if the keepers there were to survive.

Still, a hurricane in 1873 did some major damage to the tower.  The repaired structure proved so sound, that plans to build a new replacement were cancelled, and it still stands today. 

It was this same structure that housed Florida's very first radiobeacon, which was installed in 1927, and when the beacon was first electrified, just four years later, its light was the most powerful in the entire country!

Having been automated since 1987, it no longer needs a keeper for the light.  However, it has't been left to fend for itself out on that lonely little key.  Volunteers live in an original building, and when the USCG makes regular maintenance visits, they have housing there that dates back to 1922, when a fire destroyed one of the other original dwellings.

The Dry Tortugas Light is still on duty today. 

Can You Visit the Dry Tortugas Lighthouse?

Yes, No, and Maybe

You can take a ferry (adult fare is $170.00 round trip) to  Dry Tortugas National Park on Garden Key, where you spend a fascinating few hours touring Fort Jefferson, snorkeling, and hanging out in one of the most remote beaches Florida has to offer.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFort_Jefferson%2C_Dry_Tortugas_National_Park_-_Flickr_-_Joe_Parks.jpg

Loggerhead Key, with its Dry Torgugas Light is three miles to the west, so you can see it from there.   (The picture of it shown above was actually taken from the fort.)

Bonus:  The fort has its own lighthouse, the Garden Key Light.  Interestingly, these two beacons were the only two on the Gulf coast that stayed lit for the duration of the Civil War.  

 

Photo by Joe Parks,  CC

Is it possible to get to Loggerhead Key to see the third tallest tower up close?  Technically, yes.  You might be able to charter a boat or seaplane from Key West, though there are no bargain prices.  

Alternately, you could arrange (in advance) to take your own Kayak along on the ferry, and paddle the three miles over to Loggerhead.  Personally, I'd only recommend this if everyone in your group (don't do it alone) is a skilled kayaker, an expert long distance swimmer, good navigator, and a certified lifeguard.  Wear life jackets, take shark repellent, check the weather forecast, and avoid planning to do this during peak hurricane season.  

Lighthouses to Have at Home

St. Augustine Mug, Dry Tortugas Puzzle

Sombrero Key Lighthouse

Not So Tall, But Still Tallest

Tower Height: 142'

The Sombrero Key Lighthouse isn't among the top three tall beacons in Florida.  But it still gets a "tallest" rating.

That's because it's the tallest of its kind in Florida.  And, what kind is that, you ask?  It's a screw-pile lighthouse, and there are no taller ones in the state.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AUSCGSombrero_key_1971_sm.jpg

It stands in eight feet of water, on pilings, which are screwed into the rock that is what is left of an old island, off the coast of Marathon in the middle Florida Keys.  Sombrero Key itself has been 'eaten' by the sea, and is now completely submerged, but the small island  appeared on maps dating from 1700's and early 1800's. 

The light was plenty needed there when it was built in 1858, and still is, because of the shallow reefs in the area.  The men who manned her were plenty needed, too, for a century, until she was automated in 1960.

The box like structure that you see roughly a third of the way up was where the staff stayed.

The beacon shines red and white lights, which are visible for 20 and 15 nautical miles, respectively.

You can see it (you can't actually visit it) when you go to Sombrero Beach in Marathon, and look out into the ocean.  Or you can book one of the snorkel boats that goes out to Sombrero Reef, where you'll get a closer view

 

Photo courtesy US Coast Guard

Do You Want to Visit One of these Florida Lighthouses?

Which One?

Where Are Florida's Tallest Lighthouses?

Florida's Tall Lights
Florida's Tall Lights
Approximate Locations of the Lighthouses Featured on This Page

Map image credit (purple markings are mine)

 Locations marked are approximate, just to give you a general idea of where you'll find each of these five beacons.   

Especially for Puzzlers

There's something for everyone on tine internet.  Here's a page for people who like lighthouses AND also enjoy working jugsaw puzzles: 

Nautical Jigsaw Puzzles: Lighthouses

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You may not have your very own lighthouse to decorate for the holidays, but you can decorate with lighthouses. Features: Story of the Seul Choix Light and the art of Brenda Tnour.
Updated: 04/03/2016, CruiseReady
 
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CruiseReady on 08/15/2015

DerdriuMarriner There are lots of stories centered around lighthouses. Some we may never know, since light keeper was often such a solitary job, and not all of them wrote down their experiences. That's really something to think about.

CruiseReady on 08/15/2015

Blackspanielgallery - we have lots of lighthouses in Florida! I don't recall ever seeing a covered bridge here, but you are right that both make very cool images.

DerdriuMarriner on 08/13/2015

CruiseReady, Covered bridges, lighthouses, and windmills seem to be such attractively practical statements on a country's culture and history. So I like all of the lighthouse stories even though I admit to favoring Mosquito Inlet's coverage by Stephen Crane and Pensacola Light's experiences with broken lenses and flying ducks.

blackspanielgallery on 08/13/2015

Lighthouses are like covered bridges they are part of history and always make interesting images.

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