Sometimes as the sun slowly fades over the horizon, Thomas Taylor climbs to the top of the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse and marvels at the view of Daytona Beach to the north. He leans against the iron railing and gazes at the ships on the Atlantic Ocean, trying to envision what life was like for the generations of keepers who tended the beacon and devoted their lives to protecting the sailors aboard the vessels that traversed these treacherous waters.
"Just think of all the lives that have been saved and all the ships that have been preserved because of this light," says Taylor, a historian for the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse Preservation Society. "Because of the way they were built and the role they have served, lighthouses are both architectural and historic treasures."
Lighthouses, with the beacons illuminating the black of night -- even cutting through the thickness of fog -- can be mysterious and romantic. That's especially so of the one at Ponce Inlet. The majestic red-brick lighthouse, which towers 175 feet, is the second tallest in the nation. (The beacon at Cape Hatteras in North Carolina holds the top spot.) Though dozens of restored lighthouses line Great Lakes shores and ocean coasts across the United States, few are 19th-century stations that feature their original buildings.
The Ponce Inlet station, opened in 1887 and abandoned by the Coast Guard in 1970, includes eight buildings and the tower. The compound was saved from destruction in 1972 by a group of citizens who formed the Ponce de Leon Lighthouse Preservation Association.
The station has three dwellings, which once housed the lighthouse keeper and his two assistants. They are now museums that tell stories of lighthouses and shipwrecks and depict the adventurous and sometimes dangerous lives of lighthouse keepers and their families.
A LONG WAY UP
The lighthouse was designed by Francis Hopkinson Smith, whose father, Francis Hopkinson, was a member of the Continental Congress and is believed to have designed the first American flag. More than 1.3 million bricks were used to construct the tower, which is 32 feet in diameter at its base and 121/2 feet around at the top.
Its iron spiral staircase has 213 steps that lead to the gallery, where the view of Daytona Beach and the Atlantic Ocean are worth the strenuous climb.
One of the station's highlights is a building that houses a collection of rare lighthouse lenses. The display's centerpiece is a working first-order Fresnel lens that illuminated the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse from 1868 to 1993. The lens, which features ornate glass and brass, was made in France and is worth $2 million, Taylor says. He adds that preservation association members are restoring the original Ponce Inlet Lighthouse Fresnel lens from 1887.
The Museum of the Sea occupies the principal keeper's house. Here are navigation instruments, pirates' treasures and other intriguing nautical artifacts. One display recounts the tragic demise of the Commodore. In 1897, the ship left Jacksonville, sailing for Cuba with guns and ammunition. One of its passengers was writer Stephen Crane, who wrote The Red Badge of Courage and was serving as a correspondent for a New York newspaper.
The Commodore sank off the coast of present-day Ponce Inlet, then known as Mosquito Inlet. Though several men were killed, many sailors reached the safety of the lighthouse in their lifeboats. Crane washed ashore on Daytona Beach in a 10-foot dinghy a day after the ship sank. He wrote about his ordeal in the short story, "The Open Boat."
The Museum of the Sea displays an assortment of guns and ammunition recovered from the wreck site, including custom-made Remington rifles.
The second assistant keeper's dwelling -- the Lighthouse Museum -- showcases clothing, relics and photographs from keepers and their families. The museum also describes the lighthouse's storied history.
Among the displays is a model of the first lighthouse -- a 55-foot-tall brick tower built in 1835. Not long after construction on the beacon was completed, the boat carrying oil for its lanterns sank off the coast of Savannah, Ga. Before another shipment of oil could be delivered, a hurricane washed away the keeper's quarters and severely damaged the tower. That December, during the Second Seminole War, Seminole Indians set fire to the lighthouse and took the lamp reflectors. Chief Coacoochee wore one as a headdress in a battle three weeks later. The Seminoles prevailed and Mosquito Inlet was abandoned. A year later, the lighthouse crumbled into the ocean, and more than 50 years passed before another tower was constructed.
For an idea of home life at the station, explore the first assistant keeper's home, which has been restored to appear as it would have in the late 1800s. The house holds several original furnishings, such as the china cabinet and the dining room table and chairs.