Roger Bansemer

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

St. Johns River Lighthouse
Commonly known as the Mayport Lighthouse
Mayport, Florida
1830, 1835, 1859

St Johns River Lighthouse
St Johns River Lighthouse done in acrylics on illustration board. İRoger Bansemer

Back when I was a young man in the early seventies, I was stationed in Mayport onboard the aircraft carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt. Living on an aircraft carrier was not what I remember as the highlight of my life, but I considered myself fortunate to be heading to the Mediterranean instead of to Viet Nam. I was just a number and lost among the four thousand other men onboard the carrier. I served my time, painting and sketching when I could, and I remember casually looking at the lighthouse here on the naval base while in port, occasionally making a sketch or two. The lighthouse was insignificant to a sailor like me back then at the age of twenty, but to the many early mariners whose job it was to guide their ships safely into port, these lighthouses were a vital and important part of seafaring. To me, they were simply romantic images and remain so today.

The scenery around the lighthouse has changed completely since the St. Johns River Lighthouse was built in the 1800’s when the area was quite desolate but I could see little difference from a couple of decades ago when I served there. The correct name for the lighthouse is the St. Johns River Lighthouse but everyone in the area knows it as the Mayport Lighthouse. It remains proud but insignificant, lost among the powerful jet fighters, aircraft carriers, and destroyers. A forgotten relic of the past that stands only because of our concern for its history.

The St. Johns River is interesting as rivers go, and it goes north. Very few rivers in the Western Hemisphere flow in that direction. It empties out into the Atlantic at the Mayport Naval Station not far from Jacksonville. There were several lighthouses built here in Mayport long before the naval base. The first one was built in 1830, fifteen years before Florida even became a state. An encroaching ocean required that it be torn down, and another one was built in 1835. It too was undermined and destroyed by the sea. Then in 1859 this lighthouse was built.

In 1929, a lightship seven miles offshore from the mouth of the St. Johns River replaced the usefulness of the Mayport light, and in 1954 a new lighthouse was built on another part of the Mayport Naval Station to replace the lightship. The old lighthouse no longer functions except as a day marker and as a reminder of the past for the many ships heading into the port of Jacksonville, as well as the yachts and shrimp boats that make Mayport their home.

You might think it would be difficult to get onto the naval base to see the lighthouse, but when I was there to do the painting, the guard just waved me through. (Of course that can change at the discretion of the base at any time.) Drive to where the aircraft carriers are docked and make a left around the end of the paved runway onto what looks like a service road. The area around the lighthouse is far enough away from all the ships and military buildings that you still feel a sense of the past. The lighthouse is currently not open to the public, but the grounds around it are. In the meantime, the Mayport Lighthouse Association, with the help of the Navy, is working on plans to open the lighthouse to the public and to rebuild the keepers quarters.

If you can’t get onto the Mayport Naval Station, you can still get quite close to the lighthouse by going to the delightful small village of Mayport with its picturesque shrimp boats and popular seafood restaurants. From there you can see the lighthouse through the chain-link fence of the naval base only a hundred yards away. From Mayport you can take a ferryboat ride across the St. Johns River, then drive along the sand dunes to the Amelia Island Lighthouse and San Fernandina Beach.

Near the lighthouse, shrimp boats make the small town of Mayport an interesting place to visit and an even better place to have some lunch with seafood fresh from the boat.

The original door to the lighthouse can’t be seen. It sits below the current level of the landscape. This came about when the Navy graded and raised the area for the nearby runway burying the lower 15 feet of the lighthouse. You can still see the ghostly outline of where a building was attached to the tower.

Once a remote location for a lighthouse keeper, now the lighthouse is rimmed by military jet runways, large naval ships, and of course those practical and most attractive military-style gray buildings. From here you can look right over at the runway where modern fighter jets take off and land and at the docks where large aircraft carriers and destroyers are tied up. It makes an interesting contrast

In 1861, an additional 15 feet was added to the lighthouse to bring it to a height of 81 feet. To me, it makes the lighthouse look like a huge, upright culvert pipe.

NOTE: The lighthouse has now been painted white.

İRoger Bansemer

St Johns River Lighthouse Map, Mayport Florida
İRoger Bansemer