As Florida was beginning to grow, Pensacola, the states
second oldest city, began to emerge as a major port. However, it was hard to find for
mariners who were not familiar with the area. Ships could pass right by without realizing
the port was there. In 1823, only two years after Florida was purchased from Spain, a
lightship arrived in Pensacola Bay, marking the entrance to the port. That same year
Congress appropriated money for a lighthouse since lightships had very weak lights and
were unreliable during storms. A year later, the new lighthouse was lit. It stood thirty
feet tall, but since it sat on a bluff, the actual height was seventy-five feet above sea
level. It was lit with ten individual whale oil lamps. Problems and criticism followed.
Tall trees prevented mariners from seeing the lighthouse by day from many angles along the
coast, and the lighthouse was so similar to the one near Mobile Point in Alabama that
mariners sometimes confused the two. The clockwork mechanism that rotated the lights
deteriorated to the point where the keepers would have to turn it by hand all night. The
lens also proved to be insufficient because of inferior glass. The glass was eventually
replaced, but overall the lighthouse remained inadequate.
A taller lighthouse was needed. In 1851, Congress began looking into the problem, but
it took eight years until a new one was built. It was almost 160 feet tall and had a
first-order Fresnel lens, the largest of its type, which could be seen 22 miles away. This
new lighthouse was located about a half mile west of the original light.
By 1861, the country was at war. Union soldiers stationed near the lighthouse at Fort
Barrancas moved to Fort Pickens just across the bay for more security because they feared
an attack by Confederate forces. Those fears became a reality when Confederate troops
seized the lighthouse and other property on the mainland. The lighthouse proved to be an
excellent outpost for spying on Union troops at Fort Pickens.
The light was extinguished and the lens dismantled and moved for safekeeping. An
artillery battle between Union forces at Fort Pickens and Confederate forces on the
mainland took place, but there was no damage to the lighthouse. On May 9, 1862, the
Confederates evacuated Pensacola, destroying as much as they could before they left.
Pensacola was once again in the hands of the Union. Fortunately, the lighthouse was left
intact. A year later, the lighthouse was once again lit but with a smaller and dimmer
fourth-order lens. It was decided to keep the more powerful first-order lens in
safekeeping until the war ended.
By 1870, cracks had begun to appear in the tower. Repairs were made, along with
renovations to the keepers house, and the first-order lens was reinstalled. Once
again the lighthouse was in fine condition and for the next seventy years, everything
remained about the same. Then in 1938, electricity was installed, and indoor plumbing
replaced the outhouse and cistern. A year later, the Coast Guard was put in charge of
lighthouses and of civilian employees of the U.S. Lighthouse Service. From that point on,
all new keepers were required to enlist in the Coast Guard. Those civilians already
working as keepers were given the choice to join the Coast Guard or to remain civilians.
The keeper of the Pensacola light chose to keep his nonmilitary status. He remained keeper
until 1953; in the mid 1960s, the lighthouse was automated.
The only railings on the spiral staircase are those attached to the brick
wallsthere are none towards the centermaking this by far the most frightening
spiral staircase in a Florida lighthouse. To add to this, there are no landings the entire
way up. One slip towards the inside of the staircase, where the steps are only a few
inches wide, could mean a long, disastrous fall.
When the Navy built an airstrip nearby, there was talk of tearing down the lighthouse,
but historic interest kept it standing. Ads were placed in local newspapers, soliciting
bids to tear down the keepers house since it was no longer needed, but no bids were
submitted, giving preservationists time to save it.
The lighthouse is open to the public only on special occasions, but you can visit the
grounds anytime for a good look. The Naval Air Museum located a few blocks from the
lighthouse rivals the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, for its quality. Admission
is freethat alone is worth a trip to Pensacola. Fort Pickens, across the bay from
the lighthouse, is a twenty-seven mile drive of about an hour by car and is also open to
the public. Fort Barrancas is also near the lighthouse and is open to the public.