My husband surprised me with a vacation to Florida in February as my Christmas present. Little did we know in December just how much we would be looking forward to having a break from the cold and snowy New England weather by then. Besides greatly enjoying the much warmer temperatures and the sight of green grass again, we would be visiting two of Florida’s lighthouses—Mount Dora and Jupiter Inlet.
Mount Dora Lighthouse is located at Grantham Pointe in Gilbert Park on the north shore of Lake Dora. It is the only lighthouse on an inland freshwater lake in Florida. We had a little trouble reaching our destination as there was a craft fair going on, and some of the streets were closed to accommodate the pedestrians. However, once we reached Gilbert Park, there were plenty of parking spaces. The first thing we noticed were the danger signs warning visitors that the water was an alligator habitat and not to feed or entice the alligators. We didn’t see any alligators, but there were plenty of birds and a friendly squirrel. There was also a boardwalk that follows a portion of the lake, and from there we watched a seaplane land near the lighthouse, and a few minutes later take off again.
We walked out to the red and white striped lighthouse which has a large Welcome To The Port Of Mount Dora sign with a quote from Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Underneath the quote were six signal flags that spell out MT DORA. There were several park benches by the 35-foot private aid to navigation. Of pretty recent construction, having been built in 1988, the lighthouse is in good shape, though it looked like the white paint could use some washing or a fresh coat.
As we were admiring the view and soaking in the sunshine, other tourists were walking around the pointe, while a local came to try some fishing, and at the marina, a couple were taking out a boat for a tour.
Our next lighthouse visit took place on Valentine’s Day. My husband had booked us a slot for Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse’s annual Valentine Toast at the Top. Couples could book a time slot to spend fifteen minutes alone at the top of the lighthouse with a champagne toast on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday evening beginning at 5 pm.
We had the first time slot for Saturday evening, but arrived several hours before so that we could have time to explore. Because the lighthouse is located on a U.S. Coast Guard base, visitors can only tour the grounds and climb the lighthouse as part of a tour. We took the next tour that began after our arrival. Our guide unlocked the gate and told us some history of the lighthouse and the area as we followed a pathway to the 108-foot tall red brick lighthouse.
Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse was designed by Lieutenant George Meade, who later became famous for his part in the Civil War. Several factors delayed the lighthouse’s completion, among them the danger of attack from Seminoles, transportation issues due to the shallow channel to reach the building site, and mosquitoes. The lighthouse was finally lit on July 10, 1860, but the light was extinguished for several years during the Civil War.
While we were waiting for the previous tour to descend the lighthouse, our guide pointed out the huge Banyan tree that was planted in 1931 by Captain Charles Seabrook who was head keeper from 1919-1947.
Before we could reach the lighthouse to climb its 105 cast iron stairs, we had to traverse a shorter set of stairs as the lighthouse is situated on a hill, adding to its height. As we finally entered the lighthouse, we noticed that there were two openings where visitors can kneel down and see between the two brick masonry walls of the lighthouse. There was also a replica of a 100 gallon lard oil barrel, or “butt” as was the nautical term, from which the keepers filled up their much smaller 2 gallon can to carry to the top.
We began our climb up the spiral staircase, pausing at each of the three landings to look at the view outside the window. One of the stairs has a hole which is covered by Plexiglas. Even though we knew there was something covering the hole, it was still a little bit unnerving. According to Josh Liller, Historian and Collections Manager of Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and Museum:
Before electricity, the Fresnel lens rotated by means of a system of clockwork and a cable with a weight attached. The weight descended inside the double walls through a hole above the 3rd landing (south-facing window) which is still visible today. At some point in the early 1900s (we do not know the date yet), the system was rearranged so the weight descended inside the tower instead of inside the wall. A hole was cut in the 92nd stair so the weight could pass through. In 1928, the lighthouse connected to the local power grid and the clockwork, cable, and weight were removed being no longer necessary, but the hole was left (although presumably covered somehow for safety). During the 2000 restoration, the hole in the 92nd stair was filled with a piece of Plexiglas; the stair could have been replaced but we wanted to preserve the unusual history.
There is some confusion related to the hole because in the early 1920s the weight broke free and damaged 5 stairs farther down. Those 5 stairs were replaced during the 2000 restoration and can be identified by an asterisk-like mark where they connect to the central column. As is all too common with the fuzzy nature of human memory, two similar true stories (the hole being cut intentionally for the weight and the weight falling to damage stairs) often get erroneously merged into one not-quite-true story.
In 1928, more damage occurred at the lighthouse when a hurricane blew out one of the bull’s-eyes lenses in the lighthouse’s first order Fresnel lens. The damaged lens was repaired and fixed with bronze crossbars which can still be seen to this day. The First order Fresnel lens was manufactured by Henry Le Paute of Paris, whose name can be seen on a plate on the apparatus.
We enjoyed the view from the top of the lighthouse and looked forward knowing that we would be back in a few hours for the Toast at the Top. While we were waiting for our second climb, we explored the gift shop and the museum. The museum had some great displays on the history of the native people and of the lighthouse, and there was also an informational video on the lighthouse that ran on a continuous loop.
On our second climb of the lighthouse, we were able to take our time and take more photos without worrying about other people being behind us as we climbed the stairs. The Fresnel lens turned on while we were enjoying the views from the gallery and sipping champagne. Before we descended the spiral staircase for the last time, the volunteer, who had escorted us to the top and poured the champagne, handed us a package of vanilla and chocolate fudge. It was a sweet ending to a perfect day.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2015 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.
All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.