This was the home of the station's head or principal keeper and, as befitting his station, it is larger and of a different design than the assistant keepers' houses. The principal keeper dwelling's design is derived from late Victorian "stick and shingle" architecture and is similar to a keeper dwelling built for the Amelia Island Lighthouse at Florida's Fernandina Beach. The Key West lighthouse has a similar dwelling as well.
This is the third principal keeper dwelling built at the Amelia Island Lighthouse. It is very similar in style to the Mosquito Inlet dwelling.
There are two front doors. The door on the left opens into the family's living room and the one on the right opens into the parlor – a place where the keeper could welcome visitors and conduct station business. In addition, there are three bedrooms and a kitchen. The kitchen is connected to the house by a breezeway which was originally not closed in until 1926, when screen doors and windows were added. At the kitchen entrance are two small rooms on either side of the hallway. These were the pantries. On the hallway floor is a hatchway that allows entry to a cistern used to store water that was captured from the roof during rain storms. Because the wells dug around the station brought up mostly tainted and smelly sulpher water, rainwater was used for drinking, cooking, and bathing. Each keeper's kitchen had a cast iron sink and a pump that delivered water from the cistern up into that sink. The principal keeper dwelling also boasts a small cellar which is located under the kitchen and is certainly a rarity in Florida! In it, the keeper stored extra food supplies, tools, paint, and any other items whose use he needed to regulate.
This photograph was taken before the 1921 bathroom enclosure was added to the north porch. In the modern photo above, the bathroom enclosure can be seen to the left of the front doors.
The front porch offers an interesting glimpse into the evolution of the light station's dwellings. On the north side of the building, the porch has been enclosed with wood siding. This enclosure was part of a 1921 upgrade to the entire light station when the porch of each keeper's home was given a bathroom with indoor plumbing. These bathrooms were definitely welcome, but the additional luxury of hot water was still years away. For the principal keeper, part of the newly added space was devoted to a small office located at the west end of the porch. This allowed him to receive visitors in a room totally separate from the living quarters.
Interior of the 1921 bathroom addition.
Inside the principal keeper dwelling you will find exhibits that tell various aspects of the light station's story. If you enter through the right side front door, you'll be greeted by Native Americans in Florida, a look at the early populations of the state and some rare relics of their presence nearby the land occupied by the lighthouse. There is also a model of the 1835 lighthouse and some artifacts from the Seminole Wars. Behind the left front door are two exhibits devoted to the construction and the later restoration of the tower. There is also a large viewing window that allows visitors a close look at the interior of the 1921 bathroom addition. Bathrooms were added to all the keeper dwellings, but this is the only one that has not been removed. The cast iron tub is original to the light station. The sink and toilet came from demolitions of other local buildings of similar age.
One of the two center bedrooms is devoted to a hands-on exploration of how a Fresnel lens works. The Fresnel lens is named for Frenchman Augustin-Jean Fresnel (pronounced Freh-NEL) who developed this lens in the very early 1800s. His invention quickly became the standard for lighthouse optics in Europe and was adopted in the United States after 1850 when the government began updating its system of navigational aids and the era of the brick giant lighthouses began. The four interactive stations in this room demonstrate how the lens works. With an arrangement of prisms and a central lens, the apparatus bends light emitted from a central lantern so that all the rays exit in a horizontal and parallel configuration, creating a single strong beam. This beam can be made to exit in either a fixed or flashing manner. One of the exhibit stations allows visitors to construct and test their own lighthouse flash pattern or identifying characteristic.
The other small bedroom is devoted to the story of the steam tug Commodore and the American author Stephen Crane, whose novel about the Civil War entitled the Red Badge of Courage, won him lasting acclaim. When he wrote that novel, Crane had no personal battlefield experience, and it was an experience he craved. This desire led him to ship aboard the Commodore as a correspondent for a New York newspaper.
The Commodore was a gun-running ship, and on December 31, 1896, she set sail from Jacksonville, Florida, for Cuba with a load of guns, ammunition, medical supplies, and other aid for Cubans who were rebelling against Spanish rule. Crane was aboard and under cover, hoping to spend time observing the fighting and perhaps participate in other ways. What he got instead was something very different and perhaps even more dangerous. The ship had struck the bottom several times on her way out to the open ocean, and, once out to sea, the Commodore was quickly taking on water. It soon became apparent that she would sink, and the captain ordered the men to abandon ship. Stephen Crane, the captain, the ship's cook, and a crewman found themselves adrift in a small wooden dinghy about 13 miles off the Florida coast. The only thing the men could see was the light from the beacon at Mosquito Inlet. The men rowed towards the light and after 30 difficult hours finally came ashore near the lighthouse. The surf was rough, and one man was killed as the little boat came up on the beach. A week later, Stephen Crane published an account of this adventure in the New York Press. The account became famous as "The Open Boat," often described as one of America's best short stories.
The principal keeper dwelling served as more than a home. In 1939, the Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Service. During World War II, the navy took control of the Coast Guard and families were moved off the station. The building became a barracks for Coast Guardsmen who were there to receive training, stand watch in the tower, man the lighthouse beacon, and oversee a new radio beacon that had been installed at the lighthouse in 1939. Initially set up in the large bedroom of the first assistant dwelling, the radio beacon was later relocated in the woodshed/privy building of the first assistant keeper.
A Coast Guardsman changes the bulb in the third order lens at the top of the tower.
After the war, the former home of the principal keeper was used mainly for storage. Coast Guard caretakers continued to live in the assistant keeper's dwellings at the lighthouse until early in 1953. The light in the tower was then fully automated, and the need for resident keepers came to an end.
Today, the pantries and kitchen of the principal keeper contain two rare and engaging exhibits. The two pantries hold identical interactive computer kiosks in which a visitor can locate and view information and photos of any lighthouse on the planet that is still standing and can be physically visited. This opportunity is totally unique to this museum and Lighthouses of the World was researched and developed by the staff of the Lighthouse Preservation Association.
Moving beyond the pantries and into the kitchen, you will see another rare exhibit concerning the work of the Lighthouse Service Airways Division. Not many people are aware of the role played by the Lighthouse Service during the early years of airmail, and artifacts that tell the story are hard to find.