In 1843, the U. S. Congress provided funds to construct a lighthouse at Cape Canaveral. Completed in 1847, the original light was fueled by whale oil. The light was changed to a kerosene wick type lamp in December, 1885, as reported by Dr. Charles A. Hentz upon his visit of December 22, 1885. Dr Hentz mentioned that the lamp consumed about six gallons of fuel each night.
At some later point in its history, electricity became available and a thousand-watt electric light bulb, combined with Fresnel lens technology, provided the light that was so important for mariners along the relatively dangerous waters of the protruding Cape. The Fresnel lens is a beehive-shaped system of precision-ground prisms that refracts and magnifies a modest light source into an intense beam. An electric motor replaced the original weight-driven system after electricity became available on “The Cape,” as it is known.
In 1847, William Carpenter and John Scobie were the first lighthouse keepers. In 1853, Captain Mills Burnham was appointed as permanent lighthouse keeper, a position he held until his death 33 years later. He and his family lived a very isolated existence near the Lighthouse, having very few visitors other than an occasional shipwrecked sailor. One non-shipwreck visitor in 1857 was an eccentric Englishman, Sir Tatton Sykes, who spent time in the area wantonly killing scores of birds and trying to catch an alligator. Sykes Creek, just east of Indianola on Merritt Island, commemorates that rich, strange visitor.
Just before the Civil War, engineers began building a 145-foot iron tower to replace the first one, but war halter their work. During the Civil War, Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Stephen Mallory ordered all lighthouses on the Southern Coast shut down. Miles Burnham dutifully complied with the order crating and burying the lamps and clockwork in his orange grove near the Banana River.
When the war ended, he dug up the equipment and returned it to representatives of the U. S. Government, who praised him for his careful treatment of the apparatus.
After the war, the lighthouse saw several improvements. In 1868, a new tower was built. That same year, the lighthouse acquired a new Fresnel lens from the 1867 Paris Exposition and a new kerosene-fired light mechanism, allowing mariners to see the light 18 miles at sea. In 1873, concrete and brick repairs were made to the lighthouse, which had suffered termite and salt damage and the tower was painted with black and white horizontal strands similar to North Carolina’s Bodie Island Lighthouse.
In spite of the lighthouse, Florida’s east coast remained treacherous, especially during hurricanes. Many ships were lost as they approached the Cape and were driven onto the shore.
The keeper and his assistants were always busy maintaining the lighthouse and keeping the grounds cleared. It was their duty to keep the wick trimmed so the flame would be bright and not smoke. They also cleaned the Fresnel lens, which is made of hundreds of curved glass prisms in a copper frame. The lens reflected the flame do that it could be seen 12-18 miles at sea. The Canaveral light now shines from an automated system and two 1,000-watt bulbs. The magnificent old Canaveral lens is still preserved in Volusia County.
In 1870, the Ladona, a French steamer, wrecked at Canaveral during a hurricane. The vessel “came ashore stern first, in a gale and in spite of the fact that she was dragging both anchors and with engines going full speed ahead. For more than 50 years, parts of her hull marked her grave. She carried an immense cargo of French boots and shoes, and though hundreds of them were gathered up by the settlers in the neighborhood, they were so badly mixed that only one pair was found, so odd shoes were in the fashion for a long time afterwards.”
Another ship that was destroyed provided several bolts of white cloth that had a narrow blue stripe. Local Canaveral residents were able to salvage enough of the cloth for everyone to have new clothes. The women made skirts, shirts and aprons. Many of the early families on the Florida East Coast found the unexpected gifts of the sea to be critical for their survival during those pioneer days.
Clinton P. Honeywell, born in Baltimore in 1861, came to Canaveral in 1884 to homestead government land. He became the assistant keeper of the Cape Canaveral light in 1891. In 1904, he was appointed head lighthouse keeper, a position he kept until his retirement in1930. He married Gertrude Wilson, daughter of Henry and Mary Augusta Burnham Wilson. In 1904, the lighthouse keeper’s pay was $700 a year, or about $63 a month. In that year, the Honeywell’s started their family with the birth of their first child, Gertrude. Florence, their second daughter, was born in 1909, and Clinton P. Honeywell, Jr. was born in 1911.
During Honeywell’s tenure as head keeper, erosion caused the shore to reach within 70 feet of the lighthouse. Congress approved funds to move it. During a period of 18 months in 1892-94, the lighthouse was relocated a mile inland. The move was accomplished by mules, which pulled the lighthouse over rails to its new location. The lighthouse still stands at this site today.