Proposing a Lighthouse

In March of 1823, Congress authorized $6,000 for the Pensacola Lighthouse. To serve the port until the lighthouse was finished, the floating light vessel Aurora Borealis was transferred from the mouth of the Mississippi, where the Frank’s Island Lighthouse had just been completed. The vessel was positioned in calm waters behind the western end of Santa Rosa Island. A site just west of Fort Barrancas was selected for the lighthouse. Ships would be able to steer directly towards the light to enter the harbor, something that was not possible with the lightship.

On March 24, 1824, Winslow Lewis, responding to an advertisement in the Boston Patriot, offered to build the lighthouse and dwelling for $4,927. For an additional cost of $750, Lewis would “fit up and Light the Light House with ten patent Lamps and ten fourteen inch Reflectors and furnish two spare Lamps, six double tin oil butts to hold ninety gallons each, six wooden boxes, One lantern canister and trivet. One tube box. One wick box. One oil carrier. One torch. One hand lantern Lamp. One oil feeder. Two files. Two pairs of scissors. Six wick formers and have it completed in thirty days after the Light House is finished.” Lewis’ offer was accepted by Stephen Pleasonton, fifth auditor of the Treasury, on April 2, 1824.

The First Lighthouse

The light from the new tower was first exhibited on December 20, 1824 by bachelor Jeremiah Ingraham. To produce a flashing signature, two groups of five lamps were fastened to opposite ends of a framework, which was rotated by a clockwork system. After two years at the post, Ingraham married Michaela Penalber of Pensacola. Together, they managed the light and raised three children at the station. When Jeremiah passed away in 1840, Michaela took over responsibility for the light. In the late 1840s, the clockwork mechanism failed and two men were hired to rotate the lamps by hand, until repairs were made. Michaela served until her own death in 1855, when her son-in-law, Joseph Palmes, was hired as keeper.

By 1850, regular complaints were starting to be voiced regarding the lighthouse. Trees on Santa Rosa Island were said to block the light, and the light was considered too dim. In 1852, the newly established Lighthouse Board recommended that a “first-class seacoast light” with a height no less than 150 feet be built at Pensacola. Congress allocated $25,000 for the lighthouse in 1854, and an additional $30,000 in 1856. A site was selected one-half mile west of the original lighthouse, and work on the tower was supervised by John Newton of the Army Corps of Engineers. The construction was completed in 1858, and the lamp in the tower’s first-order Fresnel lens was first lit on New Year’s Day, 1859 by Keeper Palmes. The tower stood 159-feet-tall and was painted white. The base of the tower had a diameter of 30 feet, tapering to a diameter of 15 feet at the top.