In October 2004, Lighthouse Digest published an article by Sandra Shanklin about the Mona Island Lighthouse in Puerto Rico. The article mentioned that the lighthouse was rumored to have been designed by Gustave Eiffel... yes, the same person who designed the Eiffel Tower and designed the wrought iron skeleton for the Statue of Liberty. The story is interesting and gives the lighthouse a special mystique, except for one small detail: there is no evidence to support it.
New research has revealed that the Mona Lighthouse was designed around 1885 by the Spanish engineer Rafael Ravena, who lived and worked in Puerto Rico. He actually prepared two very different plans, one, for a traditional masonry building with a central courtyard and twenty-five rooms, which would have been the largest lighthouse in the Caribbean, and the other for an iron tower flanked by two wood and metal buildings 64 feet long by 50 feet wide. Both designs would house three keepers and their families.
The second option, a simple iron tower, was chosen due to its lower cost and easier construction. It also may have been the choice as Mona Island is riddled with caves and the construction site may possibly not borne the weight of the masonry building. The difficulty of transporting materials to Mona and other obstacles, delayed construction so that, at the end of the Spanish-American War, only part of the material was onsite. The U.S. government obtained the remaining material and finished the project with only one residence.
Why then a connection with Eiffel? All metal components of lighthouses, including the tower stairway, the lantern which houses the lens and the clockwork mechanism that rotated it, were bought in Paris, where there were several factories specializing in equipment for lighthouses. The Spanish government had a resident engineer in charge of purchasing materials.
The construction of the Mona Island Lighthouse components coincided with the 1889 Universal Exhibition in Paris, the same fair whose entrance arch was the Eiffel tower. The company contracted to manufacture the parts, Lemmoiner Sauter & Cie, requested and received permission to exhibit the Mona lighthouse components at the fair.
We do not know how the Eiffel and Mona towers became connected, but we know that it was Rafael Ravenna, not Eiffel who designed it. The evidence is in the description of the project, available from a Spanish site which has scanned and published a large series of historical documents, and the drawings of the lighthouse from an excellent book by Miguel A. Sánchez Terry titled “Faros españoles de ultramar” (Spanish Overseas Lighthouses).
The Mona lighthouse, which entered service in 1900 had the only second-order lens used in Puerto Rico, enabling it to project its light as far as 22 miles away. This lens is in Mona, disassembled and under the custody of the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources. It will be displayed in Mona’s future Center for Research and Visitors. The light was electrified in 1938 and automated in 1973. The building was finally abandoned in 1976 when the lens was disassembled. Since then, the tower has deteriorated to the point of being beyond repair. Given its poor condition and remote location, it is unlikely that this lighthouse will ever be restored.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2011 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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