Journals of Florida's Keeper Thomas Patrick O'Hagan · News

Journals of Florida’s Keeper Thomas Patrick O’Hagan, Part 2

Thomas Patrick O’Hagan, Mosquito-Ponce Inlet Lighthouse’s second principal keeper (1893-1905), and principal keeper at Amelia Island Lighthouse (1905-1925), was stationed at many other U.S. Lighthouse Service stations during his fifty year career. Two of his sons became keepers, and a third worked as a mate on USLHS tenders. O’Hagan has some fascinating stories to share about his life at different stations throughout his long service, his extensive contacts with keepers at other stations, Lighthouse Service officials, and of course, his sons’ and family members’ tenure at other lights in the Fifth and Sixth districts. On a side note, the O’Hagan family continued to be represented at the Amelia Island Lighthouse until just recently by Helen O’Hagan Sintes who is Thomas Patrick’s granddaughter and Thomas John O’Hagan’s daughter, as the third generation of Amelia keepers. For many years, Helen graciously shared her knowledge of the Amelia Island Lighthouse and her family’s story with visitors as historian and Coast Guard Auxiliary lead volunteer at Amelia Island. She donated family memorabilia and sat for several informative oral histories with Ponce Inlet Lighthouse and Museum staff. Dear to us all, Helen remains an active member of the Florida Lighthouse Association.

January 5, 2019

John F. Mann, Lead Docent, Ponce Inlet Lighthouse and Museum

Tuesday, March 29, 1927

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Amelia Island Lighthouse, photo by John Mann

Warm, light to moderate breeze, S. to S.W. (can’t break a life-long habit of keeping the log) on a spring morning on the porch of my new little house down the lane from the Amelia Island Lighthouse. In my last little bit of writing, I promised that I would tell the story of the peripatetic Amelia Island Lighthouse. Now, I know that a few of the cast-iron towers have been unbolted and moved around from time to time like that one up in Cape Cod that went all the way to California, sat at the Depot in San Francisco Bay for six years, and now is going to be placed south of San Francisco. But I’m betting that my Amelia Island tower, which started in service in 1820 only a few miles across the Saint Mary’s River on Cumberland Island in Georgia, is the only brick tower ever to be disassembled, moved from one state to another, and rebuilt. And from what I understand, Winslow Lewis, the original builder in Georgia, moved it some eighteen years later here to Amelia, reconstructing it in late 1838 to 1839.

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Amelia Island Light Station (Wikimedia Commons)


I know that during his time, Mr. Lewis established standardized plans for his towers, with certain heights, sixty-five feet, and fifty and down to twenty-five feet and so on. That could work in the Northeast, but it wouldn’t make too much sense along the coasts from New Jersey on down. I also think it can be said many of Mr. Lewis’ towers don’t seem to have much luck staying upright. A good example, the first Mosquito Inlet lighthouse, looked very much like Amelia and pretty much all of Lewis’ towers with a typical whitewash sometimes on stucco over the brick and a black, iron lantern room.

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Artist’s conception of the 1835 Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse (Ponce Inlet Lighthouse Preservation Collection)

That first Mosquito tower, 45 feet tall, was built by Lewis in 1835 on a dune on the south side of the inlet, or the New Smyrna side. Before it could be fully supplied with oil and lit, it was hit by several storms which washed away the sand dune around most of whatever foundation it had, if any, and seriously undermined the tower. All that might sound unkind or critical about Lewis, but that was frequently the trouble with his towers, and his work. And whether all the storms that happened that year had anything to do with Halley’s Comet, which was widely seen at that time according to the Almanac, is a different matter.

One storm lasted seven days, really not all that unusual along that coast. That late October storm completely washed away the keeper’s residence, all of the family’s belongings, ate away at the dune the tower was built on, and further angled the tower. Having sold his part of a plantation and having moved to the new lighthouse station upon his appointment as keeper, William Williams, his wife, Fanny, his children and servants were, according to him, “made homeless, without a change of garments, and dependent on the kindness of others for shelter.” To make matters worse, all of this was happening during the Florida Wars with the Seminole people. In fact, a month later on Christmas Day of 1835, a Seminole raiding party burned homes and plantations in that immediate area. The Indians eventually wound up at the light station and ended up setting fire to the tower’s wooden door to get in. They tried to burn the wood steps and did break all the glass in the windows and the lantern. If the oil had been delivered, surely the tower would have been burned completely. The Seminoles even discovered where Williams had hidden away the lamp’s reflectors, and local lore has it that their leader wore one of the reflectors as a head or chest ornament during a battle a month later at a plantation.

Williams, son of a local planter, was active in local politics as a Justice of the Peace and a Notary. He went on to considerable fame later in life, becoming a member of the Florida legislative council that drafted the Florida Territory’s first constitution. He was later elected Sherriff of what was then East Orange County, a part of the broken up Mosquito County, a huge area consisting at the time of parts of several present counties here in north central Florida. That East Orange County is now called Volusia County. However, the best part of the Williams’ saga is how he revenged himself on the Indians, but not without some consequence. Williams joined a troop of Florida Militia called The Mosquito Roarers, organized to fight the Seminoles and to protect their families and property. At one encounter with the Seminoles, he and his fellow militia found themselves cut off with their backs to the river while retreating to their boats. In a final act of spite, Williams dropped his trousers and exposed his hind end before boarding. A Seminole musket ball found its way, lodging itself into his fleshy seat. It is said he limped slightly for the rest of his life, but always laughed at himself when telling the tale.

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Artist’s conception of the demise of the first Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse in 1836. (Ponce Inlet Lighthouse Preservation Collection)

The 1835 Mosquito Inlet tower was completely washed away by erosion from another storm in April of 1836. The Lighthouse Establishment thought seriously about replacing it, but given the ominous uncertainty of Seminole raiding parties harassing people and plantations all over that part of the Territory, it never happened. It was forty-six years before another lighthouse would be built at that inlet.

When it is all said and done, the 1887 Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse tower was the most beautifully proportioned and well-built of all the tall brick towers. I didn’t expect to serve there, and that’s a story in itself I’ll tell, but I have very good memories of living and working there from December 1, 1893 to September 23, 1905.



Thomas Patrick O’Hagan  (Ponce Inlet Lighthouse Preservation Collection)


Information gathered from Ellen Henry’s soon to be published new history of the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse; McCarthy and Trotter, Florida’s Lighthouses, University Presses of Florida, 1990; Taylor, Thomas, Florida’s Territorial Lighthouses 1824-1845, Florida Sesquicentennial Publication 1995; Taylor, Thomas, Florida Lighthouse Trail,2001, Pineapple Press; and Oral Histories given by Helen Sintes to the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse Preservation Association.

Journals of Florida's Keeper Thomas Patrick O'Hagan · News

Journals of Florida’s Keeper Thomas Patrick O’Hagan, Part 1

During recent renovations to the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse and Museum’s administration building which resulted in additional space for our artifacts collection, I uncovered a pile of moldy, partly moth-eaten journals wrapped in twine.  They are unsigned, but contain, I am sure, the hand-written memoirs of Thomas Patrick O’Hagan, the Mosquito — later Ponce — Inlet Lighthouse’s second principal keeper (1893-1905) and principal keeper at Amelia Island Lighthouse (1905-1925).  Leafing through the books, the names, dates, locations, and wonderful recollections – it’s got to be Keeper O’Hagan. Written in five school composition books, O’Hagan, who served at many other Fifth and Sixth District stations in his almost fifty-year career, had some interesting stories to share about his life at the six very different lighthouses, and through his contacts and his family, other stations. I have transcribed the first “chapter” for you.  As a side note, the O’Hagan family has graciously shared with us at here at Ponce Inlet Lighthouse many other family keepsakes, mementoes and pictures. They also have done several extensive oral histories. T.P.’s handwriting is difficult to decipher, and the pages are somewhat brittle after all these years, but I will do the best I can. From time to time, I will take a crack at other sections of these journals.

— John F. Mann, Lead Docent, Ponce Inlet Lighthouse and Museum   

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Four men in U.S. Lighthouse Service uniforms in front of the Amelia Island Lighthouse, circa 1924.  From left, Joseph O’Hagan, David O’Hagan, Thomas Patrick O’Hagan, and Thomas John O’Hagan. (Ponce Inlet Lighthouse Preservation Collection.)

March 13, 1927.

It’s a perfect spring morning on the porch of my new little house down the lane from the Amelia Island Lighthouse.  The station, located in Fernandina Beach, is just south of the St. Mary’s River, really on the border of Georgia to the north, and the beginning of the east coast of Florida.  Now, there’s an interesting story in and of itself. The Amelia Island Lighthouse started its service only a few miles to the north on Cumberland Island in Georgia and then got moved and rebuilt here to Florida.  I’ll get to that soon enough.

My son, Thomas John, and his wife, Helen, have been after me of late to write my story, and he says now is the perfect time to do so.  I think he just wants me to keep myself busy and out of his hair. For forty-nine years, I never really had the chance to write anything other than keeping the log, making supply requisitions, and posting correspondence to the District Office in Charleston.  Now that Thomas John has taken over Amelia, and doing a fine job just like I taught him, he nags at me to take pen in hand before I forget it all.  So, let me begin.

Let me tell you a little about myself.  Until two years ago I was the Principal Keeper here at Amelia Island, the oldest tower in Florida.  My wife, Julia, passed away in 1915. She and I had twelve children. Two of our sons, Thomas and David, are lighthouse keepers and a third, Joseph, served as a mate aboard a U.S. Lighthouse Tender and also on several lightships.  Now, I’m not one to fly my own kite, but I don’t think anyone else in the Lighthouse Service can say that four men in one family were on the job, all at once! Actually, five in one family, but not all at the same time, if you count my oldest brother John who served as an assistant at the Morris Island Lighthouse in Charleston and managed Charleston’s Harbor lights for thirty years until he drowned off Sullivan’s Island in 1909.  You know, now that I’m thinking about it, I should mention that I’m also related by marriage to Amos Latham, and his son, George. Amos was the head keeper for this tower when it was in Georgia, and came with it when it was moved here to Amelia. George was also keeper here at Amelia before the War to Preserve the Union. The Latham’s were on Julia’s mother’s side.

Thomas Patrick on porch of principal keeper’s residence at Amelia Island, 1923. (Ponce Inlet Lighthouse Preservation Collection.)

I was born in the City of Brooklyn, New York, on January 10, 1859 to Denis and Mariah Corr O’Hagan who married and emigrated together from Ireland to Liverpool to New York arriving on September 2, 1850 on the ship, West Point.  They had lived all their lives in Tullyniskan Parish, County Tyrone, in the north of Ireland. Like many others, The Great Hunger drove them from the land. I had two brothers and a sister. A few years after I was born, we moved to a farm in New Jersey.   For some reason, my father took my brothers, John and William, back to Ireland and they attended school while he worked as a stone mason on a cathedral. When they returned, we all moved south and settled in the Charleston area. When she comes to visit my house, I love telling my little granddaughter, Helen, about me growing up on a farm and milking 18 cows before dawn.  Well, maybe it wasn’t exactly eighteen, and maybe it was a little later than dawn, and maybe I helped with the pails and didn’t really milk them.

I joined the Bureau of Lighthouses at seventeen years as a part-time, assistant keeper at Hunting Island, South Carolina, starting the year of our Nation’s Centennial.  Two years later, I was appointed Keeper at Fort Ripley Shoals. Both stations are near Charleston. Also in 1878, Julia Catherine Schuppe and I married at Star of the Sea Catholic Church on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, and soon after we moved to the big, old, fine First Assistant’s house at the Morris Island Lighthouse.  We stayed at Morris Island for nine years. In July of 1887, we moved to Georgetown Lighthouse, south of Myrtle Beach, where the first four of our children, Mary Jane, Charlotte, Irene and Thomas John were born. In December of 1893, I swapped jobs with William Rowlinski, and became Head Keeper at the Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse, and he went to Georgetown as keeper.

Amelia Island Lighthouse, 2018. (Ponce Inlet Lighthouse Preservation Collection.)

Seven more of our children, Julia, Agnes, William, Edith, Joseph, James and David were born at Mosquito Station.  Speaking of that, my son David’s middle name is Cowie. We named after Doctor Cowie of New Smyrna. Yes, I rowed cross the inlet and down river in the station launch to get the doctor, in all kinds of weather, in order for him to look after Julia during difficult childbirths.  There was a nurse who helped for the others. Her name was Miss Agony. We laughed about that, but she was a good soul.

In September of 1905, we packed up our brood, and old Bessie our cow, and took the train up to the Amelia Island Light. When I retired Thomas John took over, and David became his assistant keeper that same year.  The Bureau must have liked my work, because the week that I retired they put out a very complimentary bulletin to all stations and said I was meritorious. I didn’t think I did anything special, any other keeper wouldn’t do.

Well, I have more than a few stories to share over an almost fifty years of a job, and a good one at that, but I guess I better close now and get another glass of lemonade.  Plus, my hand hurts from all the writing. Helen says it’s the arthritis.