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Amelia Island Lighthouse

A brief history of the Amelia Island Lighthouse

Description: Amelia Island is the northernmost barrier island on Florida’s Atlantic coast. The St. Mary’s River slowly empties into the Atlantic between Amelia Island and Georgia’s Cumberland Island to the north and serves as the curvaceous portion of the border between the neighboring states. Fernandina Beach is Amelia Island’s largest town, and it still seems locked in the enchantment and charm of the Victorian era. The island’s acres of marshlands add to the tranquil setting, but if you ask around a little you can quickly learn about the island’s scandalous past and just perhaps the unique origin of the Amelia Island Lighthouse.

According to local lore, since the arrival of the Europeans, eight flags have flown over Amelia Island, giving rise to the title “Isle of 8 Flags”. Three of these flags were from the brief reigns of the "Patriots of Amelia Island", Sir Gregor MacGregor, and a pirate, but for the most part, the island’s history can be summarized as "the French visited, the Spanish developed, the English named and the Americans tamed." The island was named in honor of Princess Amelia Hanover, daughter of England’s King George II.

In 1802, a resolution of the Georgia General Assembly ceded jurisdiction of six acres on the southern tip of Cumberland Island to the U.S. Government for lighthouse purposes. At that time, this parcel was the southernmost site on the U.S. Atlantic coast, as Florida was back under Spanish rule, after the British left. It took eighteen years before Winslow Lewis built a lighthouse on Cumberland Island in 1820. In the interim, Congress had outlawed the importation of slaves in 1808. Given the proximity of Amelia Island to the Southern States, it soon became a major black market dealing in slaves and was home to scores of smugglers, drunkards and prostitutes. The United States eventually stepped in and took control of the island in 1819, and in 1821 Spain officially ceded Florida to the United States.

Perhaps if the U.S. had gained control of Florida before construction of the Cumberland Lighthouse, the tower might have been placed on Amelia Island. Instead, the lighthouse stood across the border, guiding vessels into the St. Mary’s River and along the Atlantic Coast. In 1838, however, the Cumberland Lighthouse was dismantled brick by brick, shipped across the river, and reconstructed atop a promontory on Amelia Island, where the beacon was likely more visible. The light source for the tower consisted of a collection of fourteen lamps, backed by reflectors, which revolved to produce a flashing characteristic. The lighthouse was upgraded in 1856 with a third-order Fresnel lens manufactured by Barbier & Bernard.

David Levy Yull, who became Florida’s first Senator in 1845, led a push to build a cross-state railroad spanning the 155 miles between Fernandina Beach on the Atlantic and Cedar Keys on the Gulf. Completed in 1861, the railroad took eight years to build and allowed goods to be shipped between New York and New Orleans without having to round the Florida Keys with their dangerous reefs and shoals. Before the railroad could have much impact on the local economy, both it and the lighthouse were taken out of service by the Civil War.

Spared from wartime damage, the tower quickly returned to service after the conflict. One of the keepers in the post-war era was Dewayne W. Suydam, one of about twenty head keepers who, over the years, were responsible for climbing the tower’s sixty-nine granite steps to tend the light. Each keeper recorded the weather and other observations of interest in the station’s logbook. Keeper Suydam wrote an entry the day he gave up tobacco, and when he retired in 1891 at the age of sixty-three, he penned: “20 years ago I commenced in the Light House Service; have been absent but one night during that time” – talk about having no vacation time.

A red sector was added to the light in 1920 to alert mariners of dangerous shoals south of the tower in Nassau Sound. Electricity reached the tower in the 1930s, allowing the tower to be automated in 1956. Following automation, the Coast Guard Auxiliary was responsible for the lighthouse and held CPR and boating safety classes at the station.

Under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, the Amelia Island Lighthouse was declared surplus and offered to Fernandina Beach. In a ceremony held on March 28, 2001, the lighthouse was officially handed over to the city. In 2002, the city received a $350,000 grant from the Florida Division of Historical Resources, enabling Worth Contracting, Inc. to complete restoration work on the tower in 2004.

As the property is surrounded by private homes, providing public access to the lighthouse is problematic. The town is currently weighing various options and will likely offer two “fee-based’ public tours each month, wherein the participants will be bused to the site. The Coast Guard Auxiliary will still maintain the light.


Florida Lighthouses,McCarthy, 1993.

Location: Located in Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island.
Latitude: 30.673
Longitude: -81.442

Travel Instructions: Occassional tours of the lighthouse are offered by the City of Fernandia Beach. For more information call: (904) 277-7350. At other times, access to the lighthouse grounds is restricted. Views of the light can be had from from Atlantic Avenue (Highway 200 or A1A) or from Fort Clinch State Park. The entrance to the park is off of Atlantic Avenue, west of the lighthouse.

amelia_lighthouse (67K)

Linked toDewayne W. Suydam

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