A Living Light

The Cape Canaveral Lighthouse has stood on the cape for over 150 years.

In the beginning the current lighthouse was located about a mile and a half east toward the tip of Cape Canaveral. It was not, however, the first lighthouse located on the cape. The first tower, built of brick, was just 65 feet tall. After many mariners voiced their concern that this structure was not tall enough to sufficiently warn ships of the abundance of shoals just off the cape shores, the government approved construction of the current tower.

Today’s lighthouse was originally built about 80 to 90 feet from the first brick tower but was moved inland in the late 1800’s due to the encroaching sea. Relocating a structure this unique is no small task. In the late 1800’s it must have been a daunting one. Given the climate of the Cape, the heat in the summer, as well as the lowlands and swamps that dot the cape, finding a suitable route had to have been a challenge.

Accounts state that the lighthouse was taken apart, and hauled over rails pulled by mules. Because raw materials were hard to come by, the 65 foot brick tower was destroyed to provide the foundation on the new site for the current lighthouse. The move and re-erection took ten months. The lighthouse was relit in July 1894 on its present location. The construction of the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse is a fascinating one. The structure has iron plating bolted together and the whole tower is lined with two layers of brick with spacing between the actual brick wall and the iron plating. The lighthouse was designed to be 151 feet tall. Its beam shines approximately 22 nautical miles and continues to be a working lighthouse today.

Other interesting features of the Cape Canaveral lighthouse are the roman numerals that can be found on each of the stairs that wind their way to the top. This trait undoubtedly assisted in the relocation effort. Originally this lighthouse had a first order Fresnel lens atop its tower. The Fresnel lens was developed by a French physicist, Augustin Fresnel in 1822. It is a built-up annular lens comprised of a central spherical lens surrounded by rings of glass prisms. The central portions of these prisms refract and the outer portions both reflect and refract. A photo of the original Fresnel lens can be viewed on the Gallery page. To protect the fragile lens from the strong Florida sun which might cause the individual lens prisms to crack, a canvas drape was pulled up along the inside of the gallery glass during the daylight. Just before dusk, the drape was let down and the light was lit.

The original design of this lighthouse was for the lower three levels to be able to withstand the sea without flooding. Thus, the original and only entrance to the Cape lighthouse was up a stairway along the outside of the lighthouse to the third level. The lighthouse currently has a door at ground level which faces the oil house, a small brick building used for kerosene storage. It was in the 1930’s that this ground-level door was added, probably for convenience.

Of the keepers of the Cape Canaveral lighthouse, probably the most well-known is Capt Mills O. Burnham. He was the first permanent keeper. Capt Burnham and family originally settled in Ankona, near Vero Beach in the early 1800’s. For six years he grew pineapples, and ran the schooner Josephine between the Indian River and Charlestown, S.C. in the turtle trade. When Indians invaded the Vero Beach area in 1849, he moved his family to St. Augustine and in July 1853, Capt Burnham received the appointment of lighthouse keeper at Cape Canaveral. He was the lighthouse keeper for 33 years until his death on April 17, 1886 at the age of 68. He is buried with his wife Mary in the family cemetery under the spreading live oaks on Cape Canaveral. Capt. Burnham’s eldest daughter, Frances Augusta also served as assistant lighthouse keeper.

Cape Canaveral Lighthouse Foundation, Inc.
P.O. Box 1978, Cape Canaveral, FL 32920

A video tour of the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse conducted by Dr. Sonny Witt can be viewed on YouTube. View the Lighthouse tour. Dr. Witt’s video tour takes you all the way to the top of the lighthouse. For safety reasons, public tours of the lighthouse are limited to the fifth level.