Dear Call Box: In exploring the beaches area, I saw a red brick lighthouse at Mayport Naval Station. I would like to know its history.
Dear S.A.: The St. Johns River Lighthouse survived the Civil War, fill dirt, hurricanes, a fire and threats of demolition. After 158 years, it proudly stands as the oldest lighthouse in Mayport.
Its door is buried underground, and its only entry is through a window.
It took a few bullets during the Civil War or so rumor has it. In any case, it’s seen a lot, from Civil War gunboats to aircraft carriers.
It’s been the subject of watercolors, photographs and other artistic renderings.
It was once home to owls.
And some aficionados come from across the country to see it and other lighthouses.
At the time it was built, entering the St. Johns River was a risky business except for small vessels, according to a 1976 Jacksonville Journal story. Shifting sands and erratic currents moved the channel about so that sailors were never quite sure how to get across the bar at the mouth of the river, the story said.
It was the third lighthouse to be erected at the river’s mouth.
The first was constructed in 1830, according to most sources, but was built too close to the water and soon proved inadequate. After being rebuilt once, the Army constructed the St. Johns Lighthouse in 1858-59 with a $15,000 appropriation from Congress. It was made of such materials as red brick, slate, cast iron, wrought iron, granite and stone, according to a Journal story. A slate spiral staircase is in the center.
The beacon atop the lighthouse warned mariners of their approach to the shoals.
Apparently, there were some ships that the keeper didn’t want to guide through the channel. Legend has it that he shot out its light to keep Union Navy gunboats from finding their way to Jacksonville, said Sarah Jackson, archives and collections manager of the Beaches Museum.
For a while, it was among the only brick structures for miles in that area so it stood out, Jackson said. The Sanborn Maps show the buildings in Mayport as yellow, meaning they were built of wood, she said. A big fire in 1917 destroyed most of the village as a result, but the lighthouse stood the test.
The 81-foot structure was decommissioned in 1929. It was replaced by a floating lightship anchored 8 miles offshore that was also named the St. Johns. In turn, the lightship was replaced in the 1950s by the St. Johns Light, a modern lighthouse on the eastern edge of the naval station that was automated in 1967.
Some of the St. Johns River lighthouse, including its door, went underground when the land at the naval station was regraded at the onset of World War II, said Bill Austin, base spokesman.
Multiple thousands of cubic yards of fill were imported to raise the elevation of the airfield and strengthen the shore of the new naval station, Austin said. The lighthouse keeper’s cottage was razed to ensure a level surface, and as much as 10 feet of fill was dumped at the lighthouse.
“The original door of the lighthouse is buried beneath fill, and the structure is currently accessed by naval personnel through a secured window,” he said.
During the 1950s, the Navy wanted to demolish the lighthouse because expansion of its runways had made the old structure a minor hazard to navigation, the Journal reported in 1980. But residents objected, mounted a campaign and with help from U.S. Rep. Charles E Bennett convinced the Navy to abandon the idea. Those efforts were rewarded in 1976 when the lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It’s also been designated by the Jacksonville Historic Landmarks Commission as one of Jacksonville’s most significant historic buildings.
Conway Buford, who was born on the site, spoke at a commemorative ceremony in 1982, according to a Journal story. His father, Amos Buford, was the lighthouse keeper for 30 years. Conway Buford recalled that the the keeper’s cottage and two storage structures were on the site when he lived there.
“I remember that when I was 14, I helped my father paint the top of the dome,” the then 82-year-old said. “I was suspended by a rope fastened to the ball on the top. My mother refused to watch.”
In 1982, the Navy completed a project to restore the copper dome, replace the windows around the top section and spruce up the building. The windows were replaced again in 1999, but there have been no renovations since then due to federal funding constraints, Austin said. The lighthouse is regularly inspected to ensure its preservation, he said.
In past decades, there was talk of moving it closer to the St. Johns River ferry slip in hopes of restoring the lighthouse and opening it to the public. But efforts to obtain a state grant for restoration were not successful, and other factors made the project unfeasible.
The best way to view the lighthouse is by driving through the fishing village of Mayport. The lighthouse is at the foot of Palmer Street just inside the Navy’s security fence. The site is closed, but there’s a good view from Broad and Palmer streets.
“Each year, we host around 20 to 30 people who contact my office to see the lighthouse,” Austin said. “We honor each request as schedule permits.”
Lighthouse enthusiasts have come from across the country during his 12 years at Mayport, he said.
If you have a question about Jacksonville’s architectural history, call (904) 359-4622 or mail to Call Box, P.O. Box 1949, Jacksonville, FL 32231. Please include contact information. Photos are also welcome.
Sandy Strickland: (904) 359-4128