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I’ve lived in South Florida for a long time but have never been to the Jupiter Lighthouse and Museum. Seen it a zillion times, eaten across the waterway from it, taken the Manatee Queen cruise boat around it and taken lots of pictures of it from the bridge, but never set foot in the actual park grounds. Well well, was I missing out!

The past few weeks have been full of history events about the area and the native tribes that first settled this wild, mosquito infested place – at the Norton, at local lectures and in the real estate news as developers feud with residents and archeologists. The past is never really past. So all this got me in the mood to hit up the Lighthouse, proud lady of the Inlet with her sweeping historic tower of red brick and lush surrounding park.

Register in the museum and the chock full of info guide leads you through a winding path dotted with marker signs that tell tales of the site. The guide told us about the mounds the lighthouse stands on – made from thousands of shells and constructed as a base to build housing on, as a vantage point and to escape the swarms of mosquitos that could suck a person dry overnight. Apparently they can only fly about 8 feet high so the mound was a refuge. Local native plants had oils and saps that were used as early forms of repellant also.

Close-up-of-Lighthouse-lens
Close up of Lighthouse lens
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The base of the lighthouse is a wooden planked deck where the Lighthouse keepers house once stood. It was destroyed by a hurricane in the 1920s but some bricks and an underground cistern that collected water remain. An enormous Banyan that looks like a whole forest but it actually one tree stretches across the expanse of the deck. Dozens of ravens make their home in the tree, cackling and swooping around overhead.

Then we get to the good part where visitors can take the Tower Trip up, climbing the winding 105 steps in the oldest structure in Palm Beach County. Although it doesn’t stand on a classic rocky cliff by the edge of the sea, as some northern lighthouses do, the Jupiter Lighthouse does stand on a natural hill of shell and marine sand about 41 feet high. There are submerged reefs and sandbars in the waters below it, that caused innumerable ship-wrecks over the years. In 1853 Congress appropriated $35,000 to erect “a first-order lighthouse,” to mark the reef as a warning lying off the Jupiter Inlet and act as an aide to navigation.

The Third Seminole War, also called the Billy Bowlegs’ War, began in 1855 when a small detachment of army personnel, left Fort Myers to make a reconnaissance of Big Cypress Swamp, as the soldiers left the village they cut bunches of bananas from plants found near the chickees and destroyed some of Chief Billy Bowlegs’ most prize fields. This disrespect to the Chiefs property and fields released the pent-up hostility from previous clashes and Seminoles were soon firing into the soldiers camp the next morning. The new fancy lighthouse being built on the Jupiter Inlet did not go unnoticed by the rampaging Indians who were now conducting stealth raids across the state. The Lighthouse workers were having a rough time with construction from “Jupiter fever” from the hordes of mosquitoes and sand flies. These incidents disrupted the work on the Lighthouse which did not resume until 1858. The Indian Wars between the Seminole and the US troops war raging across Florida contributed to cost overruns as the final cost was over $60,000 at the time of completion in 1859, about the price of a Mercedes today.

At the base of the lighthouse is a drum that used to hold oil that fueled the lighthouses turning lights. A black metal stairway ascends into the Watch room, with small landings every 25 steps or so and windows that give better and higher views at each landing. It’s also a place to stop and catch your breath from climbing in 90 degree heat.

Lighthouse-Keepers-early-1900s
Lighthouse Keepers early 1900s

Through a small hatch in the floor you finally ascend into the Watch room, the heart of the lighthouse, as the keepers that worked here cleaned the lens and surrounding glass, trimming the lamp wicks, polishing the brass, and winding the turning mechanism weights. And about that light  – the Lighthouse has a first order flashing Fresnel lens, designed by Augustin Fresnel in 1822. The lens resembles a beehive shape , made of many sections of glass set into a frame work that looks like a single piece. The glass sections are shaped into gorgeous prisms that refract or bend light toward a powerful magnifying glass in the center of the frame. This center glass is called a ‘bulls eye’ and intensifies the light. The flashing light of the lighthouse uses a clockwork mechanism to rotate the lens at specific intervals. The intervals from a pattern of flashes and each pattern is unique to every lighthouse. Mariners can locate their position at sea by identifying a flash pattern. The light is visible from 18 to 25 miles at sea, though the oil and weighted plumb bob that ran the Lighthouse have been replaced by a small solar generator.

The view is stunning, a way to see Florida you almost never do. Science and logistics aside, there is something romantic about lighthouses and lighthouse keepers. It’s where widows walk, ships are sighted sailing in and out, foggy rainy nights with the sound of fog horns booming in the darkness. Man and his salvation beacon in isolation against the devouring action of the sea.

Seminoles-in-1881
Seminoles in 1881

Back down on earth, the waterfront Museum in the restored WWII Naval housing building offers a local history exhibit with original silver pieces, cannons, clothing and photos. Outdoor exhibits include the Keeper’s Workshop, Tindall Pioneer Homestead, Pennock Plantation Bell and a Seminole Chickee. Also available are a museum store featuring lighthouse merchandise, books, clothing, fine gifts and Lighthouse Fudge, made by Keeper trolls. Maybe.

In keeping with modern day weaponry, no “drones or selfie sticks” are allowed in the Lighthouse, but dreams and visions of yesteryear, as well as tomorrow, always are.

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Sandra-Schulman Sandra Schulman is an arts writer, music and film producer. Born in Miami, her work has appeared in Billboard, Variety, Rolling Stone, Ocean Drive, Country Music Magazine, The New York Daily News, News From Indian Country, and Entertainment Weekly. She was an entertainment columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 8 years. She has authored three books on pop culture. She currently lives in West Palm Beach with her blue eyed whippet. Sandra Schulman’s column appears weekly. Contact her at sandraslink@gmail.com.

The Jupiter Lighthouse Shines On. A Travel Review of the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and Museum That Offers Climbing Tours of the Landmark 1860 Jupiter Light