Mayport: Old St. Johns Lighthouse

by Tim Gilmore, 2/28/2019

To guide your vessel from the Atlantic Ocean to the St. Johns River was a dangerous task at a treacherous junction. Boat captains known as bar pilots navigated ships over the sandbars that marched with the tides across the depths of the vast languid river flowing north into the sea. It took three lighthouses to stand a lasting tower on these waters.

view from the lighthouse, photograph by John Kunkel Small, 1922, courtesy Florida State Archives, www.floridamemory.com

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, Congress allocated funding to build a lighthouse near the mouth of the St. Johns River. Nine years later, the first lighthouse rose where historians believed French explorer Jean Ribault placed his monument of claim on Timucuan Indian land in 1562.

Ribault Monument near Fort Caroline, photo by Jack Spottswood, 1925, courtesy Florida State Archives, www.floridamemory.com

The ocean tore at the tower, and within three years, the federal government pre-empted the waters and demolished the stillborn lighthouse.

In 1835, a mile away, the next lighthouse rose. It lasted almost 20 years. Sand dunes shifted and crept so dramatically as to block the beam from ships at sea, just as sandbars, beneath the great slow inexorable river, moved through the depths like crawling walls. The waters eroded the base of the tower.

In his 1885 Historical, Industrial and Biographical Florida, Wanton S. Webb describes what he calls “a pretty romance,” the story of a retired maritime sergeant locking his daughter in the 1835 “Hazard Light.”

Sergeant Brandt, whose first name Webb doesn’t tell, was stationed at a “naval arsenal,” though precisely where Webb doesn’t say. Nor does he give us dates. 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.”

from The Florida Times-Union, May 30, 1982

Inevitably, “a young officer of the irresistible sort,” Webb writes, “compromis[ed] her character.” Fanny’s pregnancy, for the old sergeant, was both “scandal” and “chagrin.”

When Sergeant Brandt and his daughter disappeared, “only a confidential friend or two” knew where they had gone. At the same time, Webb says, Hazard Light attained a new keeper.

1870s, courtesy Florida State Archives, www.floridamemory.com

“An old faithful servant of the Government,” the new keeper “had easily got appointed to the post, by a favorable chance just then vacant.” An old friend, privy to secret assignments, 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.

view from the lighthouse, photograph by John Kunkel Small, 1922, courtesy Florida State Archives, www.floridamemory.com

As her pregnancy waxed and her belly grew, since the old sergeant wished his daughter to suffer “a long spell of repentance,” Fanny remained imprisoned in her “wave-washed tower.” From her window, she sometimes saw her father and “the sable-skinned Peter” taking a boat to sea.

“Fanny was, in fact,” Webb says, “a prisoner, as securely as if Bluebeard had been her jailor.”

Bluebeard illustration, Gustav Doré, 1862

Peter brought her seeds and weeds and she nurtured them—morning glory, bindweed, various “convolvuli and other creepers.”

Lest his readers presume no happy ending, Webb assures us that once Fanny did “bitter penance” for her “crime,” her “young officer […] made her his bride,” for which the “old sergeant” gave “full consent.” The men made their deal; the girl paid her ransom. All’s well that ends well. No mention of the child.

Ground Morning Glory, Convolvulus Mauritanicus

The vines Fanny nurtured grew down from the light of the tower, reached vigorously out, glowed through with coastal luminescence, radiated gloriously over the waves. Still, after her redemption, when her dearest was at sea, “poor Fanny” often stood on the sodden hot promenade, “looking and sighing for her lover.”

Though Webb mentions Bluebeard, his illustration suggests a figure on the open gallery in the lighthouse crown, a Rapunzel standing in vines downward flourishing and flowering. It’s hard not to see the story ending in a second form of prison for Fanny Brandt.

from Webb’s Historical, Industrial and Biographical Florida, Part 1, 1885

Webb writes, “The old light-house is gone, and over its ruins runs a deep channel through which ships and steamers reach the windings of the picturesque St. Johns.” Drippingly, however, he concludes: “The story will last as long as love is new.”

Even after 1900, the 1835 tower stood crumbling into the river and the sea. Documentation of images frequently confused the second and third tower and elided their lifespans. In the 1961 publication, The Story of Mayport, Elizabeth Stark remembered from her childhood, “There was a red brick lighthouse, the foundation of which was plainly visible about 100 feet out in three feet of water.”

lighthouse, 1929, courtesy Florida State Archives, www.floridamemory.com

By the time the United States Navy took over most of Mayport, raising the grade of land around the tower by seven feet, the keeper’s house was gone. When the activist from BEAKS (Bird Emergency Aid and Kare Sanctuary) entered the military base with me 20 years ago, we had to crawl through a window high up off the ground to get in. Buried in the risen ground, the lighthouse door no longer opens. Preservationists and architects, 20 years before us, had done the same.

“The Navy’s missions don’t, of course, necessarily include historic preservation,” says preservation architect Herschel Shepard, who restored the lighthouse in 1978. “Some of the Navy brass thought the lighthouse stood uncomfortably close to landing strips, that it posed a potential hazard,” Shepard says, “but most of them wanted to see it properly restored.”

courtesy The Florida Times-Union, July 31, 1977

Shepard’s take on restoration and preservation respects the full experience and evolution of the structure. He speaks of old buildings as living things.

“The most accurate way to preserve it was to do as little as possible to it,” he says. “The most accurate configuration today is one that encapsulates the history and full life of the building.” Accordingly, Shepard’s first step in renovating the tower was spiraling up the interior stairs, where he “began to see the bones and remains of small creatures.”

When I climbed the lighthouse in the year 2000, I too rose into bones and remains of prey, and the memory of that ascent remains with me like the poetry of a personal mythology.

Whether or not my BEAKS guide should have led us to the top, Shepard recognized a potential danger 40 years ago and contacted the Audubon Society: “If you’ve got a mother owl up there and she’s got some young ones, she’s gonna come down and take care of you.”

barred owl, photo by Glenn Bartley, courtesy Audubon Society

Restoring the lighthouse first necessitated moving the owl and her nest to another habitat. Shepard then found the firebrick structure of the tower in excellent condition. It was, of course, built to last. He and his associate, Ken Smith, who’s since restored other lighthouses in Florida and Georgia, replaced copper, iron and glass.

The supports and rails of the catwalk around the top of the tower are made of wrought iron, which contains fewer impurities than cast iron. “Wrought iron holds up well in inclement situations and constant exposure to salt air,” Shepard says. So they dismantled the light enclosure and replaced deteriorated materials. The copper roof remained sound and strong.

When I climbed the Old St. Johns Lighthouse, it stunk, dank and dark. Stepping in through a tight portal, we saw where the tower descended beneath the grade of ground raised by the U.S. government. The water down there reeked.

The walls inside seemed soft and moist. The steps spiraled tightly, up, constricted, up, as also twisted upward the excitement of climbing with constant turning. Convolvuli. I couldn’t not imagine Fanny Brandt. I couldn’t not imagine her imprisoned, climbing such stairs, alone and claustrophobic, though her jail was the previous lighthouse, so often elided into this one.

circa 1900, courtesy Florida State Archives, www.floridamemory.com

I couldn’t imagine she pined for the lover whose seed just randomly took, except perhaps as ticket from her high dank narrow hell. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m not enough a Romantic; maybe I’m too much a Romantic.

Nearing the top of the steps, we came to bones. A few steps more, more bones, then more. As we approached the nest in place of the long-gone lens, the detritus of prey thickened enough to suggest a nest nearly wholly comprised of bones. Bones of lizards. Bones of rodents. Bones of fish. Feathers carpeted the steps approaching the open chamber.

early 1900s, courtesy Florida State Archives, www.floridamemory.com

In the top of the lighthouse, in the cupola, where had lived the lens, the crowning glory, the glorious glass Fresnel light, a very present vacancy awaited us. In place of the light, we’d found the nest. The nest was no absence just because it lacked the light. We’d intruded on a family den, invaders in a home constructed of bones and carcasses and feathers.

The great nocturnal birds were out, even in the daytime. Were 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?

photo by “Hackett,” 1969, courtesy Florida State Archives, www.floridamemory.com

If properly preserved, Shepard says, the Old St. Johns Lighthouse should stand for hundreds of years, perhaps a thousand. “The weakest parts are those that have iron in them, any ferrous materials. After the iron, then the copper would go. The glass will last longer than the iron or the copper if it doesn’t shatter. The material that holds the glass will wear out before the glass does.”

Meanwhile, Shepard suspects that remnants of the previous lighthouse, including its foundations, lie beneath the Navy’s airplane runways. Where fighter planes nicknamed “Satan’s kittens” took off in the 1950s, once stood the tower that imprisoned Fanny Brandt, supposedly repentantly pining, Florida’s Bluebeard Rapunzel.