Among U.S. states, Florida is second only to Alaska in miles of coastline. Along its 1,350 miles of coast, more than two dozen beacons stand tall, shining a light on the state’s maritime history.
Lighthouses have served as navigational aids for hundreds of years, marking ports and warning of hazards. They also provide enjoyment and education for hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
Keeping the lights on is something most people take for granted. It typically includes paying the electric bill and changing a lightbulb now and then. But for lighthouse keepers along U.S. shores, the task has been an immense one.
Imagine your light consists of hundreds of prisms, weighing thousands of pounds, rotating around a single light source to send focused beams at regular intervals to travel miles out to sea. That’s where a lampist comes in. The lampist’s job—first created around 1850—was to keep the lights working. The keeper’s job was to keep them lit at night. Together, they worked to ensure the safety of mariners.
In 1822, a new standard for lighting the way—the Fresnel lens—was designed in France. Fresnel lenses didn’t make their way to the U.S. until the 1840s, when they became the standard here as well. The lenses were differentiated by their size, or order, with first-order lenses being the largest—weighing more than 1,200 pounds and having the strongest beam.
According to the U.S. Lighthouse Society, as of 2016 there were only 10 operational first-order Fresnel lenses in the country. Three of those are in Florida, shining at the Jupiter Inlet, Pensacola and St. Augustine lighthouses. Amelia Island, Anclote Key and Hillsboro Inlet use smaller-order Fresnel lenses.
With proliferation of the use of the Fresnel lens, the lampist profession became critical. It’s estimated there used to be as many as 800 lampists in the country—specialists who work with lighthouse lenses; specifically, their maintenance, moving, assembly and disassembly.
Through the years, new technology has replaced the intricate Fresnel mechanisms. But what if you still have a classic lens and you want to keep it in working order? Enter lampist Joe Cocking.
From his Lighthouse Lamp Shop in Port Saint Lucie, Joe fields calls about lenses in need of cleaning and repair. He’s one of few specialists considered professionals in the field. At last count, only five were certified by the U.S. Coast Guard to work on lenses owned by the Coast Guard.
For Joe, years of on-the-job training began when he joined the Coast Guard. As an aid to navigation, lighthouses were one of his responsibilities. By the time he retired from the Coast Guard in 2005, Joe had learned a lot and started his own lampist business.
“It’s a niche,” Joe says.
The early lamp designers left no instructions, he adds.
“There’s no manual,” Joe explains. “They just didn’t write things down. They didn’t use the same measurements we have. Every time you turn around, there’s something new to learn. It’s taken years.”
Joe often works with another Coast Guard veteran, Nicholus Johnston. The two repaired the original lens at the St. Augustine Lighthouse, which was built in 1876 and stands 9 feet tall. The lens contains 370 prisms. A young vandal shot the lens in 1986 with a high-powered rifle, destroying 19 prisms.
“Nick, being the mechanical genius that he is, and me, we work together kind of like the right brain and the left brain,” Joe says. “We figured it out. It was a long process, but we got it done. We took the lens apart, all the way to the floor, and we reassembled it. It’s still working today.”
Kathy Fleming, executive director of the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum, is quick to point out the value of caring for and sharing the historic treasures. She is on the board of directors of the United States Lighthouse Society, created in 1910, and the Florida Lighthouse Association.
“A first-order lens like ours is like this big jewel,” she says. “When it’s in place, when it’s shining, there’s an emotional connection.”
But lighthouses are important for more than nostalgic reasons.
“They are an important part of our history,” Kathy says. “They were critical to transportation. If a lighthouse was built in a place, that meant transportation was flourishing, cities were growing, the economy was growing. They were also an important part of our coastal defense system.”
As aids to navigation, lighthouses came under the purview of the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939. The Coast Guard wanted to remove the damaged St. Augustine lens, but it was saved, thanks to the expertise of Joe and Nicholus, and the financial support of the area’s Junior Service League.
“We were the first restoration of a Fresnel lens in the U.S. in 1994,” Kathy notes. “The Coast Guard was looking at them as equipment. They are not just equipment. They are part of our culture and maritime history. The technology, the engineering, the history is all just amazing.”
The first-order Fresnel lens at the light station on Naval Air Station Pensacola underwent a $107,000 restoration in 2018 as part of a four-year, $3 million project for the lighthouse and surrounding buildings. In 2019, the lighthouse celebrated 160 years of service, surviving the Civil War, lightning strikes, hurricanes and even an earthquake.
“This is one of the few remaining first-order Fresnel lenses, and it is on its original pedestal,” says lampist Kurt Fosburg, who worked on the lens. “This one is a treasure, a real artifact.”
With passage of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000—which recognizes their cultural, educational and recreational value—came an opportunity for preservation of federally owned historic light stations. Federal agencies can partner with and transfer properties to state and local governments and nonprofit organizations.
The St. Augustine property is maintained by a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and presenting the story of the nation’s oldest port. The group also operates the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program—an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. The attraction welcomes approximately 200,000 visitors a year, about half from outside the state.
“A majority of those visitors make the climb to the top and marvel at the restored lens, which still shines each night,” Kathy says. “When people can get up close to a lens, there’s something special about that.”
Kathy still calls Joe to keep the St. Augustine lens in good order.
“It’s such a specialized field,” Kathy says. “It takes an enormous amount of patience.”
Joe says assessing a lens takes two to three days.
“You have to go all the way through it and see what’s happening,” he says. “You look at it and say, ‘What is causing this?’ When you prove it, it’s like a trip to Disney World. You’re elated.”
Work has taken Joe to many beautiful locations.
“Some of the lighthouses are so remote you take everything with you when you go,” Joe explains. “Going up and down is not a lot of fun. But it’s beautiful. That’s part of the adventure.
“When I was in the Coast Guard, I inspected every lighthouse in Maine. We’ve been to Hawaii, Alaska, all around the Great Lakes and the East Coast and, of course, here in Florida. There are some nice lighthouses in Florida. Some really well cared for. They are in really nice condition.”
Joe is still in awe of the original engineering and craftsmanship of the early lighthouse designers and the first lampists.
“The thing that really amazes me is that they figured everything out with a pen and paper,” he says. “Isn’t that amazing? And it’s amazing how accurate they were.”
He appreciates the essential value of the lenses he preserves.
“You look at a lighthouse, at the grounds,” he says. “That lens—that’s the heart of the lighthouse. Of the whole property, really. You’ve got to love them.”