In the 1880s, Florida was a remote and exotic location. The area around Mosquito Inlet (it would be renamed Ponce de Leon Inlet years later during the Florida real estate boom) was wild and barely inhabited. Only 70 people lived between the inlet and St. Augustine. There were bears, panthers, bobcats, snakes, skunks, turtles, tortoises, raccoons, squirrels, many varieties of birds, alligators, and clouds of the ever-present mosquitoes.In order to investigate this awesomely strange land, the Light-House Establishment sent General Orville Babcock on an expedition in 1883 to find a suitable place to construct a light station. No lighthouse had marked the inlet since the collapse of a tower that was constructed on the inlet's south shore in 1835 and was actually never lighted before storms and erosion took it down. General Babcock left the lighthouse depot at Charleston on January 18, 1883, and arrived at St. Augustine three days later. He then embarked on a two-day inland trek that involved travel on local rivers and creeks until he reached Mosquito Inlet via the Halifax River. He examined the south shore where the 1835 lighthouse had stood and found no trace of it. What he did discover was that the land was mainly unstable sand dunes. He described the north shore of the inlet as being 'bolder" and less subject to the forces of wind and water. It was there that he selected and purchased a 10-acre site that seemed ideal for a light station.
General Orville Babcock
What was this land like? It was naturally wooded with live oak trees, yaupon holly, wax myrtle, bayberry, saw palmettos, and other salt-tolerate grasses and vines. The landscape provided a source of fresh meat and edible plants for residents and at the river shore there were plentiful supplies of fish and shellfish. What the area did not provide was fertile garden soil. The keepers established gardens, but the food they could grow in the sandy, salty land was fairly limited. There is evidence that corn and sweet potatoes were grown. Tomatoes and herbs were also probably cultivated, but archaeological investigations have uncovered multitudes of tin cans indicating a very different kind of food source.
Today, there is a small area of nature trails behind the light station that retains some of the trees, plants, and animals that the keepers would have known. When you walk this trail, it's interesting to just stop, listen, and try to imagine what the keepers might have heard back in 1887. You may also be treated to the sight of some of our resident gopher tortoises. These protected animals create large underground burrows that can be home to them and to other species including some frogs and burrowing owls. Gopher tortoises are herbivores who gladly consume, among other plants, the weeds in our lawns. One Coast Guard keeper was particularly fond of these tortoises, and when one of his men captured, killed, and ate one of his favorites, the offending man was assigned to the job of pulling weeds and sandspurs by hand. The duty was so difficult that the fellow soon transferred to another station.
When you visit, please be advised that our nature trail area is still home to those mosquitoes that gave the inlet its original name. During the warmer months they can be present in large numbers.