Digest>Archives> September 2000

Salute to the Coast Guard: Friends of the Lens

By Cullen Chambers


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The year 1991 was not a particularly good one for the St. Augustine Lighthouse. Florida was in a recession and grant funding to further the restoration of the 1874 lighthouse was not be found. On the heels of that bad news was the word from Coast Guard personnel that the beautiful, historic, and one of a kind First Order Fresnel lens, a 8 1/2 foot tall “beehive” lens would have to be removed. Back in 1987 a teen with too much access to weapons and too few brains had taken his father’s 30/30 and fired two shots at the three flash panels which made up the night characteristic. Two entry wounds two exit wounds, too much damage to provide adequate support of many of the upper prisms due to vibration occurring during the rotation everynight of the flash panels. According to Coast Guard District Seven office in Miami, there were no Coast Guard funds available to make repairs and a less complex more cost effective DCB 224 would replace the historic optic.

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After the initial shock, we faced reality. Lens damage was extensive, the entire optic could be in jeopardy. It seemed that we had few options, other than find hundreds of thousands of dollars, a source of replicating the most damaged prisms, and someone who could remove the damaged panels, disassemble the prisms, re-assemble the repaired panels and re-install the panels, hopefully before the Coast Guard decision was irreversible.

A nationwide and then worldwide search began when in walked two angels in Coast Guard uniforms. BMC Nick Johnson and Chief Joe Cocking. They not only had an idea, they had a plan and they had something even more important, they had a level of knowledge and dedication to the preservation of historic optics that had no equal in the world. Within a few weeks they had assembled a team of Coast Guard personnel which included Jim Dunlap, Tony Farr , James Woodward and a few novice but enthusiastic younger “coasties”. Within a few months they had volunteered thousands of man hours, pioneered new and better approaches to disassembly, proper crating, and alternative materials to replace the lead based letharge historically used to set and secure lens prisms in the brass frames. Within a few months, they had found a source to replace the damaged prisms, had worked with an engineer from Disney World Dan Spinella to measure precisely the exact dimensions of each prisms, replaced and repaired the damage and re-assembled and re-installed the panels -returning our First order lens to full operation as an active aid to navigation. Along the way they managed to put together a National Lens and Repair Workshop with Tom Mcgrath of the N.P.S. and extended their knowledge to over thirty other lighthouse stewards.

Joe Cocking, Nick Johnson, Jim Dunlap, and James Woodward have gone on to repair and save over twenty other historic optics from the east coast to the west, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. They have done something even more important. They changed , the way we should look at the United States Coast Guard. Not only are they out there on dangerous seas pulling lives from the jaws of death, and keeping drugs off of our streets, they are in our lighthouse community, and in our hearts forever as friends of the lens.

This story appeared in the September 2000 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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