Roger Bansemer

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Pensacola Lighthouse information and illustrations by artist/author Roger Bansemer.
Pensacola Lighthouse
Pensacola, Florida
1824 1859

Pensacola Lighthouse

As Florida was beginning to grow, Pensacola, the state’s 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 keeper’s 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 walls—there are none towards the center—making 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 keeper’s 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 free—that 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.

Roger Bansemerİ

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İRoger Bansemer