Artist's conception of the 1835 Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse.
On June 30, 1834, Congress approved $11,000 for building the lighthouse at Mosquito Inlet as requested by continuing petitions from residents of the area. The selected site was chosen on the south side of the inlet, about 500 yards from the seashore and 300 yards from the waters of the inlet. The land and the surrounding neighborhoods were already the property of the United States government.
By September 17, an advertisement soliciting bids for the construction of the lighthouse had been prepared and a copy was sent to John Rodman, the collector of customs at St. Augustine, for publication in St. Augustine's local newspaper. Stephen Pleasonton, the fifth auditor of the United States Treasury and the man charged with the management of the Light-House Establishment, wrote to his friend and potential contractor Winslow Lewis who was based in Boston. Apparently, Lewis was suggesting changes in Pleasonton's plans for the site and had questioned Pleasonton's request that a cellar be constructed under the house. Pleasonton wrote: "I intentionally required a cellar to be made. It cannot, therefore be dispensed with, nor do I wish any alteration to be made in regard to the walls of the dwelling house. A 12-inch wall, I consider too slight for buildings of any kind to render them secure & dry. The advertisement in all respects must stand as at present published."
The planned structure of the Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse was a 45 foot tower, round, built of hard brick, with a 22-foot diameter base tapering to a 10 ½-foot diameter at the top. The walls were three and a half feet thick at the base, graduating to two feet thick at the upper level. The outside of the tower was plastered with cement and covered with two coats of whitewash. The contract called for one entrance door with four panels, and three windows, each with 12 panes of 8 x 10 inch glass. A central spiral staircase was specified to be wood and rising to within six feet of the lantern room at the top of the tower where entrance to the lantern would be via a ladder. The lantern room was fabricated from wrought iron, octagonal in form, and sat on a soapstone deck four inches thick and 12 feet in diameter. Each section of the octagon was to hold a window consisting of 21 panes, each measuring 12 x 11 inches, and below each window was a tier fitted with copper panels, one of which was a sliding ventilator. An iron balustrade with two railings encircled the lantern room. The lantern room roof was a dome with a ventilator ball at the top and a weather vane atop the ball. The ventilator ball measured 12 inches in diameter and 15 inches in height, and the weather vane was two and a half feet long and 15 inches wide. At the top of the weather vane was a two-foot tall lightning rod. A copper strap, buried two feet into the earth, connected the lightning rod to the ground. The lighthouse beacon was an arrangement of 11 oil lamps of Winslow Lewis' design. Each lamp was paired with a 14 inch reflector to intensify the light. Two spare lamps and reflectors, tinned barrels holding 500 gallons of oil, and a variety of tools and containers were to be supplied.
The plan also included a single story brick dwelling to be built conveniently close to the tower for the keeper and his family. The dwelling measurements were 34 x 20 feet and eight feet high with the interior divided into two rooms, each having its own fireplace and iron mantelpiece. The brick walls were 20 inches thick and whitewashed twice over. The rectangular roof was shingled. Each of the two rooms had three windows with 16 panes of 8 x 10 inch glass per window. A porch and a well were specified. Curiously, the contract made no mention of a privy to be dug, but the troublesome cellar was considered a must.
By October 21, 1834, Winslow Lewis was no longer just a potential contractor. At $7,494, he was the contract's lowest bidder. Stephen Pleasonton selected him for the job and directed John Rodman in St. Augustine to show Lewis the work site. Rodman was also directed to select a supervisor for the project. John Rodman was not impressed by the government's choice of Winslow Lewis to build the lighthouse at Mosquito Inlet, and his lack of confidence would eventually be justified. He wrote back to Pleasonton on November 15, 1834, stating:
"With due deference to Mr. Winslow Lewis, or indeed to any contractor with the government of the United States to do any public work, I have not the least confidence in their fidelity and good faith in the performance of their contract. I verily believe that all these contractors cheat the government. That this same Mr. Lewis did not in two of the Light Houses, which he built for the United States, honestly perform his contracts, I am fully convinced. In the one formerly built on the St. Johns river under his contract there was detected a shameful violation of his contract, by making all the wall from the foundation up to the top quite hollow. The same trick by him or his agent was also done at the Light-house at St. Marks. The loss of the Light-house on the St. Johns River, by having been blown down in a common storm, was from its having no firm and strong foundation of stone. Hence the government lost $10,200 by the bad contract of this famous Winslow Lewis.
"Under these circumstances I beg leave to suggest the appointment of Col. Thomas H. Dummett, who resides quite near the selected site of the Light-house to be built at Mosquito Inlet, as a commissioner for that purpose. He is now an applicant, very highly recommended for the office of Keeper of that Light-house and whether he should be appointed as Keeper or not, his attention and vigilance to see that no injurious tricks be practiced by the contractor or his agent, in completing the building, would be highly useful. Perhaps a dollar and a half a day for his services on this duty would be satisfactory to him."
Pleasonton wrote back in defense of his friend saying "…You appear not to have been fully and accurately informed in regard to the building of the Lighthouses at St. Johns and St. Marks by Winslow Lewis, some years ago. He took into partnership in the contract a man in whom it appeared he had confidence but who slighted the work in such a manner that Lewis had afterwards to take the towers entirely down and rebuild them at a loss as he assured me of about $6,000. Even after you had received the St. Johns Lighthouse & pronounced it built agreeably to the contract, it being found that it was badly built he sent workmen there and made it a substantial building. It did not fall as you suppose but was taken down in consequence of water having encroached upon the foundation in such manner as to endanger the buildings. The St. Marks Lighthouse was entirely re-built by Mr. Lewis and is now one of the best Lighthouses in the United States…."
Preparations for constructing the tower and dwelling were soon underway, and Col. Thomas Dummett, still the intended supervisor of the project, made a change in the tower's location. Dummett visited the site and erected at 40 foot pole to check the suggested height for the new light tower. Observing the pole from the water, Dummett could not see its top, so high was the sand hill in front of it. He suggested that the lighthouse would be too short to be of any use and identified another spot a little to the north of the first location that would give the lighthouse the needed elevation.
By mid-March 1835, the lighthouse on the south shore of Mosquito Inlet had been completed. Thomas Dummett was again recommended by John Rodman for the position of keeper there. The salary was to be $400 per annum, a good wage for the times. However, the secretary of the treasury instead selected William Henry Williams, the son of a local plantation owner, for the position.
William H. Williams was active in local politics and was appointed justice of the peace and also notary public for Mosquito County between 1833 and 1835. He was appointed lighthouse keeper of the newly built Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse on March 10, 1835, and he soon moved his family and servants to the little light station on the south shore of Mosquito Inlet.
Life at the first Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse was rugged and difficult. Oil for the lamps never arrived, and Keeper Williams placed the silvered lamp reflectors in a trunk inside his house in order to prevent them from tarnishing. The poor quality of the lighthouse and keeper dwelling soon became an issue. On May 6, 1835, Williams wrote to John Rodman, in St. Augustine. "I am again under the necessity of complaining to you of the miserable state under which I labour as Keeper of the Light House at Mosquito Inlet. 1st The well attached to the dwelling is now so dry that a boy has been obliged this day to go down and dig a hole in the middle to obtain water and that not sufficient or fit to use. 2nd The kitchen is attached to the sitting rooms of the House – the chimney thereof smoked to that degree as to render it almost impossible to cook in it and there being a door from it to the sitting room, the smoke has made the walls and ceiling quite black and at times it is impossible for any one to sit in this room on account of the smoke. 3rd The necessity of a piazza in this climate and particularly in this exposed situation is obvious and indispensible. 4th Shutters or blinds to the windows are also indispensible requisites in case of gales which are peculiar to this place." The wait for repairs to the faulty construction dragged on and on because no one could be found who was willing to do the work.
On July 18, Pleasonton wrote to Rodman to inquire when the lighthouse was first lit. On August 15, Rodman replied that as far as he knew, no oil had ever been sent. Also in August, Rodman decided to go to Mosquito Inlet himself to inspect the progress. Upon his return, John Rodman confirmed that the lighthouse construction was indeed substandard, validating his opinion of government contractors. He said that it was "the worst mechanical work I ever saw in my life."
William H. Williams was preparing to do what he could to correct these and other construction issues when a violent storm struck Mosquito Inlet on October 21, 1835. The storm lasted seven days. Williams himself was serving on a grand jury in St. Augustine, but his family was in residence at the lighthouse. When he was able to return home, he discovered the light station had not fared well. On November 4, 1835, he wrote to John Rodman, "I returned to Mosquito and found myself a beggar having lost everything in the house, my wife and children narrowly escaping with their lives. Where the house stood is now a beach, the tide flowing over the spot where it formerly was. ...The reflectors of the lamps were also lost; they were placed in a trunk in the dwelling house to prevent them from tarnishing as they were not in use. The dampness of the Light-house injuring them very much. I hope the government will immediately do something for my relief for I am homeless and have lost every thing as I stated before so sudden was the house demolished. Myself and family not having a change of garment or the necessities of life are now dependent on the kindness of others for a shelter as well as for every thing else."
Artist's rendering of the Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse after the October 1835 storm.
After relocating his family into the home of his stepfather, Williams continued to maintain his position as lighthouse keeper and persisted in his attempts to gain approval for the repair of the lighthouse, but hostilities between the settlers and Native American residents of the area made such work impossible. On December 25, 1835, a group of Seminoles under the leadership of Coacoochee (Wild Cat) attacked homes along the Indian River and worked their way north on the peninsula to the Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse. The men burned open the lighthouse door and smashed the remaining windows as they climbed the stairs, but they could find no oil to use in setting fire to the structure. In the dunes, the Seminoles found the remains of the lamp reflectors, and a few weeks later at the Battle of Dunlawton Plantation, Coacoochee was seen wearing what appeared to be lamp reflectors as a head ornament.
This December 1835 uprising marked the beginning of the Second Seminole War. The plantations and settlements in Mosquito County were attacked and burned, and Keeper Williams joined a band of citizen soldiers from the Hillsborough and Halifax River area called the Mosquito Roarers.
As a result of continuing conflicts with the Seminoles, many settlers near Mosquito Inlet abandoned their plantations and homes, and by 1840 few people other than soldiers would remain living in the area. In April of 1836, the beleaguered Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse finally succumbed to the forces of erosion and collapsed into the sea.
Drawing of the collapsed tower in 1836.
William H. Williams went on to fight in a number of skirmishes with the Seminoles, and during the Battle of Dunlawton Plantation on January 17, 1836, he distinguished himself in an unusual way. The Mosquito Roarers were hoping to surprise a band of Seminoles who were rumored to be in the area. The soldiers soon found they were outflanked and trapped with their backs to the Halifax River. The Mosquito Roarers decided to retreat to their boats and live to fight another day. Williams, in an ill-advised act of disdain for the approaching warriors, chose to turn his back and drop his trousers, mooning the enemy. The Seminoles fired at the target and a musket ball found its mark in Williams' backside.
Williams survived this painful event and went on to a career of public service in Florida. He represented Mosquito County in the Florida Legislative Council that was tasked with creating a constitution for Florida's petition for statehood. In 1842, Williams was voted out of this office, and he moved back to New Smyrna where he established another plantation home for his family. He was elected as the first sheriff of what had once been called Mosquito County and was renamed Orange County in 1845 when Florida became a state. William H. Williams, the keeper of the first real lighthouse at Mosquito Inlet, died that same year, shortly after assuming his new post as sheriff.