by Tim Gilmore, 6/21/2012
Entering your vessel from the Atlantic Ocean to the St. Johns River was a dangerous task at a treacherous junction. Boat captains called bar pilots constantly navigated ships across the sandbars that moved with the tides along the bottom of the large languid river flowing north into the sea. It took three lighthouses to erect a lasting sentinel on these waters.
In 1821, when Florida became a United States territory, like today’s Puerto Rico and Guam and Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands and Northern Mariana Islands, Congress saw the urgency of building a lighthouse near the mouth of the St. Johns into the Atlantic. Nine years later, the first lighthouse rose where historians and engineers believed French explorer Jean Ribault placed his moment of claim in 1562.
Immediately the ocean began to tear down this new U.S. hubris, and within three years, the federal government ran interference and beat the sea to the light’s destruction.
In 1835, the next lighthouse went up a mile away, though its whereabouts remain more unclear than where Ribault planted his presence. It last almost 20 years. Sand dunes shifted so dramatically on land as to block the lighthouse beam from ships at sea, just as sandbars, beneath the great slow force, like the slow mighty lumbering of whales, of the currents and tides, crawled like shifting walls across the bottom of the river. The river eroded its base.
The third lighthouse rose tall from the sands in 1858. Made of red brick, it stands still, 85 feet tall. Confederate soldiers shot its light out in the Civil War, but neither the sea nor the river ate at its foundation. In 1887, tower rose by 12 feet with the implementation of a copper dome atop the light. The Old St. Johns River Light went dark for good in 1929 when a “lightship,” anchored eight miles out, better communicated with any human vessel out at sea and shuttered finally the old sweeping beam.
1887 plans for the renovation of the third and present lighthouse show the ruins of the 1835 tower still standing against the raging sea.
In his 1885 Historical, Industrial and Biographical Florida, Wanton S. Webb describes what he calls “a pretty romance,” about a retired maritime sergeant locking his daughter in the 1835 light tower, the Hazard Light, swept into the ocean and river in a hurricane, then standing crumbling slowly into water for a century.
Brandt, whose first name Webb doesn’t tell, was stationed at a “naval arsenal,” though where Webb doesn’t say. Brandt’s daughter Fanny had become “a great favorite with captains, lieutenants” and “officers of every rank and grade. Even commodores were not above paying court to Fanny Brandt.”
Finally, “a young officer of the irresistible sort” ended up “compromising her character.” Her pregnancy served as both a “scandal” and a “chagrin” to the old sergeant.
When Sergeant Brandt and his daughter disappeared from his station, “only a confidential friend or two” knew where they’d gone. At the same time, Webb says, Hazard Light attained a new keeper.
The new lighthouse keeper came alone, but for an only daughter. “An old faithful servant of the Government,” Webb writes, the new keeper “had easily got appointed to the post, by a favorable chance just then vacant.” An old friend, in on the secret assignment, left “the new light-house keeper and his daughter on the steps of their sea-surrounded tenement,” alone but for a “negro attendant” named Peter.
The old sergeant wished his daughter “a long spell of repentance,” and as her pregnancy waxed and her belly grew with child, she stayed imprisoned in the lighthouse. Her unborn, herself, and her “wave-washed tower” coexisted like nesting dolls. The single boat was docked beyond easy reach. Sometimes she could see her father and “the sable-skinned Peter” taking the boat out from the tower.
“Fanny was, in fact” Webb writes, “a prisoner, as securely as if Bluebeard had been her jailor.”
Peter brought her seeds and weeds and she nurtured them—morning glory, bindweed and other “convolvuli and other creepers.”
Lest his readers think this tale convolves to no happy ending, Webb assures us that after Fanny did “bitter penance” for her “crime,” her “young officer […] made her his bride,” the “old sergeant” giving his “full consent.” The men made a deal with each other and decided she’d paid her own price.
The vines Fanny had nurtured grew down from the lighthouse and “poor Fanny” stood on the promenade, “looking and sighing for her lover.”
Though Webb mentions Bluebeard, his book’s illustration seems to show a figure at the top of the lighthouse amidst vines flourishing downward toward the waves, and the fairy tale that comes to mind is Rapunzel. The story seems to end, to our current sensibilities toward personal independence, in a second form of imprisonment for Fanny Brandt.
Wanton S. Webb, however, concludes his story: “The old light-house is gone, and over its ruins runs a deep channel through which ships and streamers reach the windings of the picturesque St. Johns, but the story will last as long as love is new.”
Even after 1900, the 1835 light stood crumbling into the river and the sea. In the 1961 56-page publication, The Story of Mayport, Elizabeth Stark, who grew up where the river enters the ocean at the turn of the 20th century, recalled, “There was a red brick lighthouse, the foundation of which was plainly visible about 100 feet out in three feet of water.”
When the United States Navy took over most of Mayport, it tore down the one-story lighthouse entry building and raised the grade of land around the tower by seven feet. That’s why, when the activist from BEAKS (Bird Emergency Aid and Kare Sanctuary) enters the military base with me, we have to crawl through an old window eight feet off the ground to get in. The lighthouse door can no longer open as it’s buried in the ground that’s risen around it.
The inside of the lighthouse stinks, dank and dark. We step through a tight portal.
The tower descends beneath the grade of ground raised by the U.S. government. Down there stands filthy water, reeking.
The walls inside seem soft and moist. The steps spiral tightly, up, constricted, up, as also winds upward the excitement of climbing with constant turning. I can’t not imagine Fanny Brandt with me. I can’t not image Fanny Brandt climbing these stairs, imprisoned, alone. I can’t imagine she pined for the lover whose seed took, except as ticket from such high narrow dank hell. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m not enough of a Romantic; maybe I’m too much of a Romantic.
Nearing the top of the steps, we encounter bones. A few steps higher, more bones and more. As we approach the nest, the detritus of prey thickens enough to suggest a nest of bones itself. Bones of lizards. Bones of rodents. Bones of fish. Feathers carpet the upper steps.
In the top of the lighthouse, the lens is gone. In its place, we find an owl’s nest. We intrude upon a family den, invaders, a home constructed of bones and feathers and mostly eaten small carcasses.
The great nocturnal birds are out, even in the daytime. Are they hunting? Reconnoitering? What foresight, intelligence, and metacognition does it take to maintain home range, from ancient progeny, high on a military base of upstart human beings and the bombast of their technology?
The owls nest where the light went out. The beam’s having darkened calls open an opportunity. These owls have arranged to be absent when we step into their cramped home in the old scion we built and abandoned. We’ve no idea of their whereabouts. Surely they know us better. These ancient birds, so much older than we are, have claimed the space of the missing thing, made home the place, long gone, of the dark lens, seized from the lighthouse its name and the purpose into which it rose.
Three tall towers rose, lights in their crowns. Two fell. One stands abandoned still. Amidst global posturings of suicidally silly machines of war, ancient birds build nests of deaths and dinner. I’ll extend my hand. I hope Fanny Brandt might accept it. Though I’m no Don Juan y Cassanova. I’m too old and all-pervasive to be persuasive. I’m the resistance against the tides, but I’m also the rising oceans that flood the world.