The present Cape Canaveral Lighthouse was not the first built on the cape. The original was a sixty-five-foot brick tower, activated in 1848, after Congress appropriated $12,000 for its construction on March 3, 1847. Stephen Pleasonton asked George Center, the customs collector at St. Augustine, to select and purchase a site for the lighthouse. Center wrote to Pleasonton on May 30, 1847 and reported that he had found a most eligible site for the lighthouse that was “of no value whatever other than for the purpose of a light.” Thomas C. Hammond erected the tower for $8,465, and Winslow Lewis provided the illuminating apparatus for $2,794. The tower’s flashing light was produced by a set of fifteen lamps backed by twenty-one-inch reflectors set in a chandelier that completed one revolution every three minutes and fifteen seconds. Nathaniel Scobie was the light’s first keeper, but he soon abandoned his position due to the threat of a Seminole Indian attack.
Cape Canaveral Lighthouse was built, in part, to warn mariners of shoals that extended for twelve miles off the cape. It was less than adequate at this as one captain noted in 1851 that “the lights on Hatteras, Lookout, Canaveral and Cape Florida, if not improved, had better be dispensed with, as the navigator is apt to run ashore looking for them.” The captain’s opinion was confirmed a few years later in an 1857 report by the Lighthouse Board that stated:
The light on Cape Canaveral, from its limited power and range, has never been of much, if indeed any, benefit to navigators, notwithstanding its prominent and highly important position. …No navigator who is aware of the existence of these dangerous shoals would be justified in running his vessel boldly for this light, especially in bad weather, unless his vessel is of very light draft. From the deck of a vessel—say fifteen feet above the water—this light (65 feet high) cannot be seen, under the most favorable circumstances of weather, over fourteen miles, or within two miles of the outlying dangers.
The Board recommended that a first class tower, with a height of at least 150 feet, be built to mark the coast and estimated its construction would cost $68,751. Congress allocated this amount on March 3, 1859, and the following year, a site roughly ninety feet from the cape’s brick lighthouse was selected for the new tower, which would be built of iron. Twenty bids, ranging from $69,600 to $28,000, were submitted for constructing the iron tower, and the low bid made by the West Point Foundry of Cold Spring, New York was selected. Work on the lighthouse had just started when it had to be suspended due to the outbreak of the Civil War.
Mills Burnham was the keeper of the light when the war erupted. Following orders, he reportedly removed the lighting apparatus, crated it up, and then buried it in his orange grove to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Yankees. At the beginning of the Civil War, Cape Canaveral Lighthouse and Cape Ann Lighthouse in Massachusetts were the last major lighthouses in the United States still using the antiquated lighting system of lamps and reflectors.
On May 10, 1868, the first-order Fresnel lens, which filled the lantern room atop the 134-foot tower, was lit for the first time, and the temporary fourth-order lens used in the old tower was discontinued. The new light flashed once every sixty seconds and had a focal plane of 139 feet. The increased price for material and labor following the war raised the total cost of the lighthouse to $132,391.
Keeper Burnham and his wife Mary raised five daughters and at least one son during the thirty-three years they lived at the remote lighthouse. Since the dating pool on the cape was quite small, it comes as no surprise that some of the daughters of the keepers ended up marrying the bachelor keepers. Burnham’s oldest daughter, Frances, married Keeper Henry Wilson, and the Wilson’s daughter, Gertrude, married Keeper Clinton P. Honeywell, who served at the lighthouse from 1891 to 1930. It is from the Honeywell’s daughter Florence, great-granddaughter of Keeper Burnham, that we gain further insights into life at the remote station. A circuit minister, who would stop by the lighthouse to conduct religious services once a month, baptized Florence and her brother and sister in their kitchen sink. The three Honeywell children received their initial education from a live-in teacher. The graves of Mills and Mary Burnham are located near the lighthouse.
Originally painted white, Cape Canaveral Lighthouse didn’t receive its distinctive black bands until 1873. Living inside the metal tower during the hot and humid summer months was like living in an oven, and the assistant keepers soon abandoned the tower’s living area in favor of their own makeshift huts outside the tower. On March 3, 1877, Congress provided $4,000 for the construction of a new dwelling for the head keeper, and the assistants were given the head keeper’s old residence until a new one was built for them in 1883.
In 1885, the sea encroached 129 feet toward the lighthouse, leaving just 192 feet between it and the ocean. A wooden revetment was built along the beach in 1886, with a wooden jetty at right angles to it, and when this proved successful, the work was made more permanent in 1888. While sand did build up along the revetment during westerly winds, these gains were soon lost under the influence of easterly winds. The erosion control was seen as just a temporary measure, and in 1890, Congress appropriated $80,000 for relocating the station. The two towers had stood side-by-side for over two decades, when the decision was made to relocate the metal tower farther inland.
A fourth-order light, flashing white every ten seconds, was established atop a temporary structure on October 23, 1893, and during the following months, the iron tower was dismantled and transported, along with the keeper’s dwellings, just over a mile inland using a rail cart pulled by mules. A new brick oil house was built beside the relocated tower, whose light was relit on July 25, 1894. The original brick lighthouse was blown up and used as fill material at the new site. The place where the two lighthouses stood was never lost to the sea and is still readily identifiable about 400 feet from the ocean.
A radiobeacon was established at the station in 1930, and the following October the lighthouse was electrified, increasing its candlepower by 150,000 to 430,000. The characteristic of the light at this time was a flash every fifteen seconds, produced by revolving the eight-sided lens once every two minutes.
On May 11, 1949, President Truman signed legislation establishing the Joint Long Range Proving Ground at Cape Canaveral, and the cape’s few residents soon had a very noisy neighbor. Two small communities had grown up near the lighthouse: Stinkmore to the south and DeSoto Beach to the north. During rocket launches, which commenced in 1950, the local residents were evacuated and put up in the Brevard Hotel in Cocoa. It wasn’t long, however, before the government grew weary of footing the bills for these free vacations, and soon both towns were booted off the cape. Being government employees, the lighthouse keepers were allowed to remain.
Cape Canaveral Lighthouse was automated in 1967, and later that year its keeper’s dwellings were demolished. In 1993, the first-order Fresnel lens was removed from the tower. The strong vibrations, which accompanied the frequent launches, were starting to shake the lens to pieces – several prisms had actually fallen out of the supporting brass framework. The priceless lens was restored in 1995 and placed on display at the Ayres Davies Lens Exhibit Building at Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse.
A thorough restoration of the lighthouse was conducted by the Coast Guard starting in late 1995. A canvas shroud was placed over a network of nylon lines strung from the lighthouse to protect the surrounding area while the lead-based paint was sandblasted from the tower. The nylon lines can be seen encircling the lighthouse in the bottom picture at left that was taken on October 20, 1995 and also shows the Space Shuttle Columbia soaring into space. As part of the restoration, a new lantern room was installed atop the lighthouse and the original was placed on display at the Air Force Space and Missile Museum.
The lighthouse became property of the U.S. Air Force in December 2000. The oil house, which lost its roof in a violent windstorm in the 1970s, was restored in 2003. The reinstallation of the lantern room in February 2007 capped off a nearly million-dollar, year-long renovation of the lighthouse, and the beacon in the lantern room was relit on April 29, 2007. The Cape Canaveral Lighthouse Foundation has been formed to support the lighthouse and holds at least one public event on the grounds each year. During restoration of the tower, soil samples taken near the lighthouse were found to contain high levels of lead. For a time, visitors were required to remain at least fifty yards away from the lighthouse, but this restriction has since been lifted.
Public access to Cape Canaveral Lighthouse was halted in 2013 due to heightened security status at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and it was only in January 2016 that the Air Force, Cape Canaveral Lighthouse Foundation, and SunWard Tours were able to start offering tours to the general public again.