Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Light at Cape Canaveral


As light is a symbol of understanding and guidance, so a lighthouse is a symbol of an area's local history. The Canaveral Lighthouse is such a beacon of the rich history of Brevard County, with its tales, historical characters and the events that were both festive and dramatic. A story to be told from generation to generation through oral histories, written narratives to complete novels.

The Cape Canaveral Lighthouse structure earns its distinction as the oldest man-made structure in the Brevard County area. The story begins with a need. Canaveral's Cape with its coral shoals and wild ocean currents proved a formidable hazard for maritime shipping as evidenced by a graveyard of shipwrecks off the Cape. To counter this hazard a lighthouse was needed. As with any worthwhile venture it took the efforts of many people to
get this light started. A lot of letter writing ensued with the first one dated March 26, 1822 with a letter from M.C.Perry to Smith Thompson, the Secretary of the Navy, Perry wrote that "A lighthouse is very much wanted on Cape Canaveral".

The first lighthouse was built between October 1847 and finished in January 1848 and stood sixty-five feet tall. Although it was a good start the complaints were that it had a dim light and could not be seen unless the ships were close enough, but then they would be in danger of hitting the very reef they were trying to avoid. In 1851 pressure from the maritime industry the Lighthouse Board was set to improve all the Lighthouses on the Eastern seaboard. the second lighthouse parts were forged by the West Point Foundry of West Point New York and sent to Cape Canaveral after the Civil War and assembled in 1868.


It was a tough job being lighthouse keeper in the 19th century. Carving a life out of the wilderness of East Florida was not easy with the alligators, mosquitoes, diseases, huge snakes, missed supply ships and then the keeper had to man the light during a hurricane. The first lighthouse keeper Nathanial Scobie was run off by hostile Seminole Indians after his requests for military protection was ignored. ,p> The third lighthouse keeper Captain Mills Burnham reached fame throughout the area for his hospitality with his parties and out of town visitors. Prior to being a keeper of the light, he was a gunsmith,ship captain and machinist who lived in New Smynra, Florida. Mills was a diligent worker and took great care of the lighthouse and its lighting apparatus, a Fresnal lens. With the outbreak of the American Civil War, Mills Burnham, under instructions from the secretary of the Confederate Navy ordered that the Cape Canaveral lighthouse be dismantled to hinder Union navigation. So Burnham removed the precious lens and apparatus and buried it in his citrus grove for safe keeping. He took great care of this lens and the apparatus to time the unique light sequence. Don Argo novelist of Canaveral Light wrote it best when he wrote, "“they carefully wiped and polished the glass lens prisms with spirits of wine, cranked the windlass, tightening the coil spring that turned the lens pedestal. Engaging the pawl that drove the ratchet gear, they used a pocket watch to time the turning rate of the lens ,the fixed beams would now sweep the horizon in an exact time sequence. Any ship’s captain seeing the flashes would know he was seeing the Cape Canaveral lighthouse and no other “— page 176. Canaveral Light. The light consisted of 15 lamps each with a 21-inch (530 mm) reflector.


After the war in 1868 the new lighthouse was finished and a light once again returned to the Cape. A new prosperity came with the gilded age, with it brought visitors to Burnham and his wife. On April 24th, 1873, a report from the Boston Globe entitled "Indian Mounds in Florida- Burnham's Grove of Orange Trees - Remains of a Giant Race - Curious Pottery Recovered" narrative of a visit of British Nobleman by the name of Sir Francis Sykes. Sykes visited Mills and did some archaeological work on one of the Indian Mounds on Burnham's property.

In 1885 a Hurricane caused severed erosion on the Cape's seashore which caused concern so that President Grover Cleveland and Congress put forward a bill to finance moving the lighthouse back. Moving the lighthouse was an engineering feat. "The lighthouse was moved with a tram-road in pieces with one mule" according to the oral history of Mrs Floyd Quarterman, a descendant of a lighthouse keeper. The tower was moved one and a half miles inland away from the eroding beachfront. Other features of the relocation are the roman numerals that can be found on each of the stairs that wind their way to the top. In 1873 the lighthouse received its distinctive day-mark of vertical painted black bands.

The area grew and Lighthouse community saw new well heeled neighbors arrive and built a magnificent club house called the Canaveral Club. A gun club started by C.B. Horton for the Harvard Graduating class of 1890. In 1894 The old lighthouse was blown up and the rubble used to prepare a foundation of the newer lighthouse. The cast-iron tower was disassembled, moved and reassembled at the new location a move that took 18 months. This tower stood 165 feet allowing better visibility of its light to passing ships. The next keeper

Clinton P. Honeywell served as lighthouse keeper from 1891 to 1930. By this time two small communities were established near the lighthouse; Stinkmore to the South and DeSoto Beach to the North. Stinkmore originally a fishing community sported a pier and a hotel and became a haven for bootleggers in the early 20th century. In the 1950's the Missile age came as a forerunner to the Space Age and the Canaveral Lighthouse and property was acquired by the Air Force. It was recorded that Dr. Wernher Braun, a pioneer of the space effort, used the lighthouse as a platform to observe early rocket launches. The silhouette of the lighthouse even resembles a rocket. A local tale goes that a new Pan Am employee was told to watch the black and white rocket which was about to go up, he strained to watch it for 2 hours when the silence was broken with howls of laughter from his colleagues. He was told. "You are not watching a lighthouse, you are watching a 92 year old light house." The Cape Canaveral Lighthouse is on Air Force Land that is restricted to the public. Currently the arrangements to visit the Lighthouse is by membership to the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse Foundation. For your reading pleasure read Don Argo’s “Patrick Smith’>s Award”winning Canaveral Light.

Author Don Argo pictured with Yvonne Thornton (lighthouse keeper Mills Burnham descendent aboard the Sterling Casino Boat for a relighting of the lighthouse event.

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