Roger Bansemer

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Information and illustrations about St. Augustine lighthouse by artist & author Roger Bansemer.

St. Augustine Lighthouse
1824 (first lighthouse)
1874 (current lighthouse)
165 feet high
219 steps to the top

St Augustine Lighthouse Lantern Room
St Augustine Lighthouse Roger Bansemer -  Painting done in acrylic on illustration board.
St Augustine lighthouse print

St Augustine Lighthouse
St Augustine Lighthouse Roger Bansemer -  Painting done in acrylic on illustration board used in the book "Bansemer's book of Florida Lighthouses".
St Augustine lighthouse print
Original painting also available

St Augustine Lighthouse with dolphin
St Augustine Lighthouse Roger Bansemer -  Painting done in acrylic on illustration board.
St Augustine lighthouse print
Original painting also available

St. Augustine Lighthouse

St. Augustine is our nation’s oldest city and one of the most interesting places in all of Florida. Castillo de San Marcos, better known as the St. Augustine Fort, is over three centuries old and was built primarily of coquina, a locally mined stone composed of coquina shells in a limestone base. The Lightner Museum, one of my favorite places, houses a variety of curiosities and antiques. You can walk in the old section of town, dotted with fun shops and historical buildings, including the oldest wooden schoolhouse in the United States, dating back over two hundred years. A couple of miles south of St. Augustine is Anastasia Island, the site of the St. Augustine lighthouse, Florida’s most visited lighthouse.

In the mid 1500s, Spanish settlers built a wooden watchtower so an early warning could be sounded in case of enemy attack. In 1586, English explorer Sir Francis Drake saw the tower, investigated, discovered the town, and burned St. Augustine to the ground. However, the city remained in the hands of the Spanish until 1763, when England gained control for about twenty years. At that time the English erected a tower built of coquina rock resembling what looked much like a fort on the same spot the Spanish had used for their tower and also added a cannon on top in order to warn the town of approaching ships. Spain gained control of the area again for a final time in 1784 until it became a territory of the United States in 1821. The tower site was the logical place to construct the first lighthouse in St. Augustine. Place on the existing tower and standing only 30 feet high, the light was completed and lit in 1824. Twice during the proceeding years the St. Augustine lighthouse was raised until it reached a height of 52 feet. Although it stood almost a half a mile from the sea when it was built, mother nature had its eye on reclaiming the area as beachfront property. A jetty was built to try and stop the erosion but the lighthouse was eventually undermined and it fell into the sea. The decision to build a new, 165-foot lighthouse at a new location resulting in the present lighthouse that stands today and so far it has never been threatened by beach erosion.

Living at the St. Augustine lighthouse meant the children had to be inventive. There was no television or video games to enhance and enrich a young mind, so creatively they were on their own. The lighthouse keeper’s oldest son nicknamed Cracker, built model airplanes and the lighthouse made an ideal launch pad. His younger sister Wilma had her own ideas about flight: Her idea consisted of jumping off the roof with her newly purchased umbrella to see if it would also function as a parachute. That ended with a broken inside-out umbrella but no broken bones. Cracker, older and more mature than Wilma, turned his sisters inspiring efforts from model aviation to model parachute experimentation. After several fairly successful attempts and modifications, Wilma’s cat, Smoky, happened into the picture. Cracker attached the unsuspecting animal to his final prototype and launched the unwilling test pilot off the top of the lighthouse. Paws clawed the air frantically as the cat descended the 165 feet, hit the ground running, and dragged his parachute off behind him.

Strangely enough, Smoky didn’t bother to show up for dinner that evening. Wilma searched the neighborhood, calling "Here Smoky, here kitty-kitty!," but there was no sign of Smoky. Of course Cracker knew absolutely nothing about where the cat was when asked at suppertime.

The cat eventually returned about a month later. The family concluded that Smoky must have jumped into a car of tourists visiting the lighthouse, and praised the gallant feline for finding his way home perhaps from as far away as New Jersey or who knows where. It wasn’t until fifty years later that Cardell "Cracker" Daniels let the cat out of the bag and told his sister about her pet’s challenging experience.

For eighty years, the St. Augustine lighthouse keepers and their families lived here. There were sometimes as many as fifteen adults and children occupying the house at one time but in 1955 the light was automated and a keeper was no longer needed. The once pristine grounds that had been regularly inspected for so many years began to deteriorate, and in 1970 the keepers’ house was set ablaze by arsonists or vandals. The Junior Service League of St. Augustine spent fourteen years lovingly rebuilding and restoring the lighthouse and keepers’ house to their original Victorian splendor. The league continues to improve the displays and buildings for the 110,000 people who visit each year.

The first-order Fresnel lens is still in operation as an active aid to navigation and stands twelve feet tall (eighteen feet counting its pedestal) and six feet wide. In 1986, a fourteen-year-old boy thought it might be a good idea to shoot out the lens with a high powered rifle, and he did a fair job of damaging the lens. The Coast Guard was going to remove the lens, but the Junior Service League raised the half million dollars needed to replace the shattered prisms and to install bulletproof glass on the outside. I’ve been lucky enough to stand inside this lens. It is like standing in a huge jewel with its 370 hand-cut prisms slowly turning. There’s an illustration a few pages back showing what it looks like.

The St. Augustine lighthouse is open to the public every day. The keepers’ house is a gift shop and museum, and you can climb the 219 steps to the top of the lighthouse for a nice view of the area. Sightseeing activities around St. Augustine are almost endless, and it’s easy to spend a few days visiting the sites. Many attractions are educational, some are just for fun, but all are worth considering for a memorable visit to Florida’s first city.


St Augustine Lighthouse with Florida birds Roger Bansemer -  Painting done in acrylic on illustration board.

St Augustine lighthouse print
Original painting also available
 

St Augustine Lighthouse Map, St Augustine Florida

Florida Lighthouse Maps Roger Bansemer