Every good port needs a good lighthouse, and Pensacola’s no exception. The Pensacola Lighthouse, also called the Pensacola Light, was built in 1858 and still stands overlooking Pensacola Bay. But it wasn’t the first in town.
Oddly enough, the first lighthouse in Pensacola wasn’t a house at all—it was a ship. In 1823, the Florida legislature petitioned the federal government to build a much-needed lighthouse in Pensacola. The government responded by stationing a lightship called Aurora Borealis at the mouth of the bay. The boat featured a 55-foot mast from which lanterns were hung to light the way. Although the lightship was welcomed, it was understood that it was only a temporary fix. Congress had already appropriated $6,000 for construction of a permanent lighthouse.
In April 1824, a New England lighthouse builder named Winslow Lewis won the contract with the low bid of $4,927. A site was chosen just west of Fort Barrancas, and construction began six months later. The work progressed rapidly, and on Dec. 20, 1824, the new lighthouse lit the horizon for the first time.
The light fixture in the new tower consisted of 10 individual whale oil lamps with reflectors. With five lamps on one side, and five on the other, they created two beams of light. The lamps sat on a platform that rotated using a clockwork system powered by weights. The rotation of the two beams created the illusion of a flashing light that was visible from 15-20 miles from shore.
But the new lighthouse didn’t last long. From the beginning, it was plagued by design flaws and mechanical failures. In 1851, Congress finally addressed the growing list of criticisms. They launched an investigation and found that Lewis’ lighthouse was inadequate. In 1854, Congress appropriated $25,000 for building a bigger, better lighthouse at a new location. Two years later they kicked in another $30,000 to ensure that the project was first class.
The task of building the new lighthouse fell on the shoulders of Capt. John Newton of the Army Corps of Engineers. Newton’s lighthouse was built a half-mile west of the original lighthouse on a higher bluff. The light beams were at a height of 191 feet above sea level—over double the visibility of the previous lighthouse. In addition to added height, the tower was outfitted with the Fresnel system. Instead of using multiple lamps, the Fresnel system used one oil lamp that sat inside a beehive-shaped lens composed of prisms that diffused the light many times.
The Pensacola Lighthouse went on to survive Civil War artillery fire, hurricanes and even an earthquake. For over 150 years it has stood as a monument to Pensacola’s place as a port city. Today, the facilities are maintained by the Pensacola Lighthouse Association through a lease with the U.S. Coast Guard.
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