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 1800s 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 cant 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 cant 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.