The Cape Canaveral Lighthouse witnessed the launch of the cape’s first rocket, Bumper 8, on July 24, 1950, and has had a front-row seat for subsequent launches associated with the Gemini, Mercury, and Apollo programs. Rockets still roar into space near the lighthouse (such as the 1972 launch of an Atlas-Centaur rocket shown at left), and just up the coast are the space shuttle launch pads. The lighthouse, however, has been more than just a bystander in the conquest of space.
The present Cape Canaveral lighthouse was not the first to be built on the cape. The original was a 65-foot brick tower, constructed in 1848. Its light was produced by a set of fifteen lamps backed by 21-inch reflectors. Nathanial Scobie was the light’s first keeper, but he soon abandoned his position due to the threat of a Seminole Indian attack.
The Cape Canaveral Lighthouse was built, in part, to warn mariners of shoals that extend east from the cape. It apparently was less than adequate at this as one captain remarked that “the lights on Hatteras, Lookout, Canaveral and Cape Florida, if not improved, had better be dispensed with, as the navigator is apt to run ashore looking for them.” The captain’s opinion must have been shared by others for a new tower was authorized in 1860. Any construction plans, however, soon had to be put on hold as the Civil War broke out.
After the war, work began on the new lighthouse. This unique tower was composed of metal plates with a brick lining and was erected not far from the original lighthouse. The first three levels of the new tower were designed as living quarters and consisted of a kitchen, living room, and bedrooms. The exterior staircase at the base of the tower allowed a keeper to access the top of the tower without having to go through the living area. On May 10, 1868, the first-order Fresnel lens, which filled the lantern room atop the 160-foot tower, was lit for the first time.
Originally painted white, the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse didn’t receive its distinctive black bands until 1873. Living inside the metal tower during the hot and humid summer months was like living in an oven, and the assistant keepers soon abandoned the tower’s living area in favor of their own makeshift dwellings outside the tower. In 1876, $12,000 was given for the construction of permanent dwellings for the displaced keepers.
The two towers had stood side-by-side for over two decades, when the decision was made to relocate the metal tower further inland due to erosion that supposedly threatened the lighthouse. Over a period of eighteen months, the tower was dismantled and transported roughly one mile inland using a rail cart pulled by mules. The light was relit at its new location on July 25, 1894. The original lighthouse was blown up and used as fill material at the new site. The place where the two lighthouses stood was never lost to the sea and is still readily identifiable about 400 feet from the ocean.