Several years ago, while working in New Jersey, I developed a photographic interest in lighthouses—since New Jersey has a dozen or more interesting and accessible lighthouses.
Consequently, I could not pass up an opportunity to see the Pensacola Light House, just across the road from the National Museum of Naval Aviation on Naval Air Station Pensacola. Leaving the museum that afternoon, a quick detour offered an opportunity to add another lighthouse to my photo collection.
The current lighthouse is actually the second lighthouse built in the area. The original lighthouse was built in 1824. By 1850, it was considered too dim to be reliable, and the light was obstructed by trees. The newly established Lighthouse Board recommended a “first-class seacoast light.” The current lighthouse was completed in 1858. The original lighthouse was demolished and the site has since been used for an addition to the nearby Navy Lodge.
Injured by Confederate Shells, Struck by Lightning, Rocked by an Earthquake
In 1861, Florida, as part of the south, seceded from the United States, and the Union army abandoned Fort Barrancas near the lighthouse, in favor of Fort Pickens, located across the bay on Santa Rosa Island. The lighthouse fell to the Confederates, who shut down the light and removed the lens. On November 22, 1861, a two-day artillery battle erupted and shells from guns at Fort Pickens struck the tower. The Confederates were unable to drive the Union out of Fort Pickens across the bay and soon decided to abandon Pensacola. The area and the lighthouse returned to Union control. Equipped with a new lens, the light was reactivated in December 1862.
But the lighthouse was not out of danger; it was struck by lightning—twice—once in 1874 and again in 1875. To add further insult, an earthquake shook the light in 1886. The lighthouse keeper reported the shaking, “lasted three to four minutes and was accompanied by rumbling…”
Before the earthquake, cracks had already been discovered in the tower. While the cracks could have been caused by the lightning, it is also thought the cracks were caused by shells that struck the tower during the Civil War shelling.
The keeper’s duplex adjacent to the 1858 lighthouse is leased to the Pensacola Lighthouse Association. Its east side has been restored to represent an 1880s – 1890s keeper’s dwelling, while exhibits on Civil War activity in the area, Naval Air Station Pensacola, and on the lighthouse itself are housed in the west side.
Guides Airline to Safe Landing
Though designed to aid mariners the lighthouse served a guide for an airline. In 1936, an Eastern Airlines flight was caught in a severe storm along the east coast at Jacksonville. After battling weather for an hour or more, the pilot turned back southward to get out of the storm. Running low on fuel, the pilot spotted the Pensacola Lighthouse and was able to locate the near-by airfield for a safe landing.
The lighthouse, located on the grounds of the Naval Air Station, is accessible to the public, as are the Naval Air Museum and historic Fort Barrancas.
Located on Naval Air Station Pensacola, the history of the Pensacola Lighthouse dates back before the Civil War and stretches into the mid 1900s. The light is credited with saving a commercial airliner. Pensacola Lighthouse – Marine Lighthouse Saves Airliner provides a brief history of a storied lighthouse.
Pensacola Lighthouse – Marine Lighthouse Saves Airliner offers a brief history of the light on Naval Air Station Pensacola.