Spain formed the Central Lighthouse Commission in 1861 to develop a comprehensive lighthouse plan for Puerto Rico. The commission was instructed to consider the “economic and artistic point of view,” when selecting sites and plans for lighthouses, and in 1869 it came up with a list of fourteen light stations to mark the islands of Puerto Rico. Due to the Cuba Ten Year War (1868-1878), funds for the stations were not made available until 1875, when construction was approved for four lighthouses, one of which was Cabo San Juan.
Located on a high promontory near the end of a peninsula, Cabo San Juan Lighthouse was isolated from the mainland due to a large lagoon and surrounding marshes to the south. Just east of the lighthouse, lies a string of keys. Perhaps the danger these small islands presented to mariners is reflected in some of their interesting names: Wolf, Devil, Cockroaches, and Mice.
Cabo San Juan Lighthouse consists of a one-story dwelling, measuring 98’x 41’, with a forty-five-foot-tall, cylindrical tower attached midway along one side of the dwelling. The entrance to the dwelling is on the side opposite the tower and, after passing through a portico, leads inside to a vestibule. On the left and right side of the vestibule were doors that opened into identical five-room apartments for the keepers. The five rooms consisted of two bedrooms, a kitchen/dining room, a bathroom, and a living room. Walking straight through the vestibule, one would find two rooms just before the eight steps that led up to the tower entrance. On the left was a storeroom, while an engineering room was on the right. A spiral, brick stairway in the storeroom led to a circular oil room with a vaulted roof positioned beneath the tower. Each of the rooms in the dwelling was provided with a single, exterior, double-pane casement, except for the corner rooms, which had two such windows. The lighthouse was originally painted blue with white trimmings.
An elaborate cast-iron spiral staircase leads up the tower to the lantern room. Midway up the tower, a window opens towards the sea while a double door provides access to the dwelling’s roof. The lantern room is circular and originally housed a third-order lens of Sautter, Lemonnier & Cie design. The lens was equipped with six flash panels and revolved to produce a fixed white light punctuated by a red flash every three minutes. A drop tube, located in the east side of the tower, contained a 254-pound weight connected by a metal cable running over two pulleys to a clockwork mechanism that controlled the revolution of the lens. In 1916, the original lens was evidently replaced with a fourth-order, Fresnel lens. This photograph is of the lens in the tower in 1978.
Thirty-five sailors and marines, from the monitor Amphitrite and under the command of Lieutenant Charles Nelson Atwater, boarded two small boats and rowed ashore to take control of Cabo San Juan Lighthouse on August 6 of 1898, during the Spanish-American War. Naval Cadet Boardman was sent ahead with three men and found the lighthouse unoccupied. Boardman directed his men to take off their weapons prior to climbing the tower. While one of the men was removing his gun belt, a revolver slipped from its holster, landed on the marble floor, and went off, wounding Boardman in his thigh. Lieutenant Atwater had Boardman transported back to the Amphitrite, where he later died from the wound, then relit the light in the tower and started to fortify the lighthouse against an attack. Windows were barricaded, sentries posted, and a Colt gun installed atop the lighthouse.
The nearby town of Fajardo had been occupied by U.S. naval forces earlier in the war, but upon their withdrawal Spanish troops raided the town, and an attack on the lighthouse by these soldiers was now feared.
Just before dark on August 8, reports were received that a Spanish force numbering several hundred was advancing to take the lighthouse. At about midnight, gunfire erupted at the lighthouse when Spanish forces were spotted in the surrounding brush. Atwater had the light extinguished as an indication of an attack, and U.S. ships, aided by searchlights from the U.S.S. Cincinnati, commenced shelling the slope of the hill on which the lighthouse stands. An errant six-pounder shell fired by one of the ships struck the roof of the lighthouse, within a few feet of two U.S. soldiers, but did not explode. The Americans retained control of the lighthouse without a single casualty, but withdrew the next day as the advantage of holding the hilltop location seemed slight. A Spanish lieutenant and four privates were believed killed during the skirmish.
The lighthouse is a brick structure 100 by 40 feet, inside measurement, with walls 2 feet thick, evidently built for military defense. There is little woodwork about except the doors and windows. These are furnished with heavy shutters, instead of frames of glass, and have ordinary slat blinds outside of them. The shutters when closed are secured with iron diagonal braces. The floor is marble tile, the roof beams and girders iron, and the roof floor brick. There is only one lofty story and no cellar. The front is commanded by a slightly raised central portico, with loopholes in the parapet. Opposite the portico the lighthouse tower abuts against the rear wall, and a circular gallery just under the light is loopholed. The light tower is about twice as high from the ground as the roof, and can only be entered from the ground floor or the roof. Two-foot brick parapet walls, about 2 ½ feet high, subdivide the roof. The window sills are 5 or 6 feet above the ground.
The light is 265 feet above the sea on the summit of a steep hill, which commands the four lower hills and the distant land approaches across a low neck half a mile south. The four lower hills are near to the northward and westward, and the five make up a small promontory on which it is difficult to land boats on account of the shallow water over coral reefs. The land drops away from the lighthouse immediately and on all sides. Fifty feet from the building is a barbed-wire fence. Around this and from 50 to 200 yards from it is another barbed-wire fence and a low hedge. Beyond all is rugged hillside, covered densely with high brush and creepers and traversed by rough paths, except west, where there is a pasture commanded by the lighthouse. The lighthouse inclosures are cleared except of a few low bushes and cactus hedges.
A head keeper and an assistant were assigned to Cape San Juan Lighthouse. Manuel Del Olmo was head keeper of the lighthouse for over twenty years and received the lighthouse efficiency pennant in 1913, 1915, and 1916 for having the model station in the district.
On the night of September 26-27, 1932, a terrific hurricane devastated approximately half of Puerto Rico. Known locally as “San Ciprián” after the saint’s day on which it occurred, the hurricane caused roughly $15 million in structural damage, and killed over 200 people, 13,000 pigs, and almost 450,000 poultry. The lens and lantern room were severely damaged or destroyed by the storm and were replaced by a Westinghouse four-way revolving beacon at a cost of $16,399.
The interior of the lighthouse was significantly altered around 1950, when modern bathrooms and kitchens were installed, but much of the historic fixtures, including original woodwork, the gray and white Genoa marble flooring slabs, and the fancy staircase, were retained.
321 acres on the San Juan Headlands, containing three head-like promontories that extend from the mainland into the Atlantic Ocean, were acquired by the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico in 1975, rescuing this site of immense ecological importance from a proposed resort development. In 1989, the Trust conducted extensive research to guarantee the authenticity of all planned restoration work on the lighthouse, which is located on the highest point in the reserve. Using nineteenth-century techniques, the original windows, doors, structural and decorative woodwork, and walls were restored to their original finishes and colors. The Trust received the American Express Preservation Award in 1991 for its restoration of Cabo San Juan Lighthouse, which today is the best-preserved lighthouse in Puerto Rico.
Cabo San Juan Lighthouse was made available to qualified organizations in 2006 under the provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, and in 2010 the lighthouse was transferred to the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico.