Digest>Archives> Sep/Oct 2015

The Lighthouse That Was Mistaken For A Rocket

By Grace Ballentine

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Cape Canaveral Lighthouse.
Photo by: Grace Ballentine

“Sorry, ma’m, I cannot let you on the tour bus. You ticket does not have the required security clearance,” the Cape Canaveral tour ticket taker said, her face at her official best.

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Hanger where Werner Von Braun had his office.
Photo by: Grace Ballentine

Oh, no. My husband and I weren’t going to see the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse!

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Historical Marker at Cape Canaveral Lighthouse.
Photo by: Grace Ballentine

My heart felt as if it had dropped to the floor of the waiting area. A visit to that lighthouse was our main motive, our main goal for coming to the Space Center and signing up for that specific tour.

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The shadows of amateur visitor photographers seem ...
Photo by: Harry Pettit

The reason we didn’t have that particular stamp was that we had driven to the Cape area the day earlier, spent the night at a neighboring motel and then, during the early hours of the morning, drove to the Cape Canaveral Space Center. We were the first people at the ticket booth. With two passes to the Space Center clutched in our hands, we entered the facility and then made a beeline for the spot where we could buy the tickets for the only daily tour that, during the best portion of its four-hour trip, would let us see the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse, a lighthouse whose original 1848 version eventually became the most dismantled and then reassembled lighthouse in the United States.

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Close up of the lantern and the modern optic in ...
Photo by: Grace Ballentine

The tour, which includes the lighthouse, takes place on an active military facility so we had to have a basic background check before we could go on that tour. Since we were at the ticket counter extra early, the security officer had not unlocked the security stamp vault yet so, instead of stamping our two entries with the required seal, he checked our background documentation, initialed our tour tickets, made a little note on the attendance sheet and told us we were all set to go.

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This gazebo, originally constructed in 1996 on ...
Photo by: Grace Ballentine

While we were waiting for the tour to start, we spent several hours exploring the exhibits at the Visitor’s Center and taking pictures of the rocket “forest.” Then, at the specified time, we made our way to the tour bus spot. That tour would let us get a close look at the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse, a lighthouse that, in my husband’s opinion, is one of the most securely guarded lighthouses in the entire country, if not the entire world.

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The 1st order Fresnel lens that was once in the ...
Photo by: Grace Ballentine

And now those missing stamped seals put an end to our hoped for lighthouse visit!

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Emblem of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Photo by: Grace Ballentine

“Don’t worry,” my husband said, patted me on the shoulder and then turned toward the ticket taker and asked her to call her supervisor. The woman did so and a few minutes later the supervisor showed up and quietly listened while my husband explained to the woman why our tickets were missing their stamped features.

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A rare image of the 1894 Cape Canaveral ...

She took our tickets, looked at them and then took out her cell phone. After a short phone conversation with the security officer who had initialed our tickets, she handed the passes back to us, smiled and overruled the woman who, earlier, had not allowed us to board the bus.

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The Cape Canaveral Lighthouse Station as it ...

With a huge grin on my face, my husband and I entered the bus. We were actually going to see the most securely guarded lighthouse in the United States!

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This early view of one of the keeper’s homes at ...

Cape Canaveral’s present cylindrical structure has a very interesting history. The first request for the tower’s construction was made almost two centuries ago, in 1838. That first brick tower, 55 feet tall, was lit by a set of 15 Lewis lamps, powered by whale oil and arranged, together with their reflectors, in form of a rotating chandelier. However, the beacon’s light intensity was judged not bright enough to satisfy nineteenth-century seafarers.

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This 1929 photo shows the outside stairway that ...

Its replacement, ingeniously constructed from iron plates and lined with bricks, was designed in such a way that, if the occasion ever came for moving the tower to a different place, the iron plates could be easily dismantled and then reconstructed in their new location. This tower, at 151 feet much higher than the original beacon, also had two other very ingenious features. The first feature was the location of the living quarters – kitchen, living room and bedrooms on the three lower levels of the structure. The second ingenious feature was the location of the entrance to the lighthouse. To make the lighthouse safe from storm surges, the tower’s only entrance was located on the third floor and this third floor entrance was accessed by an exterior staircase.

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This aerial view shows how the Cape Canaveral ...

The ground floor doorway was added to the present-day lighthouse in the 1930s.

In addition, the replacement lighthouse was equipped with that wonder of lighthouse lighting technology – a first-order Fresnel lens whose range extended for 21 miles. (This range compares very nicely with the present-day range of the high power spotlight that serves as the light source of the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse today.)

The Space Center tour was marvelous, in no small measure due to the knowledge of our guide. He was a retired Space Center employee and his extensive knowledge of the entire facility and its workings was a testament to the importance and high level of his previous line of work.

Before we started the tour, our guide gave us strict instructions about what we could and could not photograph while exploring each Space Complex. Needless to say, most of the places were on the “do not photograph” category. In addition, while the bus was in motion we could look at everything but we were not allowed to take any photos.

When he finished with the security instructions and introductions, I asked him about photographing the lighthouse and to my great relief he said that the lighthouse was on the “permitted” photographic list.

And then we were off – on the bus, that is, not inside a rocket.

All the Launch Complexes – their interiors and exteriors – that we saw were very impressive. All the rockets were breathtaking. The Air Force Space and Missile Museum was great.

But it was the lighthouse, witness to so many momentous space happenings, that was the highpoint of the entire tour for me.

It is strange that this old, pre-Civil War guardian of the seafarers became a witness to the most modern accomplishments of space faring men and women.

The first Canaveral lighthouse, built of brick in 1848, was dismantled during the Civil War so as not to aid Union’s navigational movements.

The next lighthouse, made of metal plates with brick lining, was constructed in 1868. However, it was once again dismantled 24 years later because it was believed that the ocean would eventually erode the land near it and the resulting erosion would cause the tower’s collapse. The beacon’s “dismantable” iron plate construction made such a move very feasible.

While the iron lighthouse was being dismantled and transported to a safer location, a temporary, skeletal tower (the third beacon) acted as the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse and worked its light magic while the “permanent” iron tower was being moved further inland.

Finally, in 1894, the dismantled lighthouse was once again rebuilt and this fourth incarnation is the one that has been standing in this “new” spot for more than a hundred years.

In the twentieth century this pre-Civil War lighthouse that had been dismantled and rebuilt so many times became surrounded by some very unexpected neighbors. Its new neighbors were, and continue to be, rockets, missiles and astronauts.

What is the most fascinating fact is the detail that the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse hasn’t been simply a passive neighbor to its technologically advanced neighbors. It has been a very active space participant in America’s space faring saga.

How did this old iron lighthouse become an active space participant? The Cape Canaveral Lighthouse was often used as an observation point for the early rocket launches. Wernher Von Braun, the chief architect of American space program, often used to stand on the balcony of the lighthouse and watched his rockets taking off on their space journeys. As a matter of fact, Von Braun even had his office close to the lighthouse. His office was on the second floor of hangar C, a very close next-door neighbor of the Cape Canaveral beacon. Hangar C still stands close to the lighthouse, its second story still a reminder of the space scientist who once used to have his offices there and where his brilliant mind did so much of the thinking, planning and designing of the United States space program.

This proximity to the space launches made the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse part of one of the most humorous incidents in space launch history. During the first space launch when non-military newspaper reporters and non-military photographers were allowed to be close (reasonably and safely close, that is) to the launch, many of these civilian photographers aimed their cameras at what they thought was the rocket waiting for the take-off. The non-NASA photographers, unfamiliar with the launch geography (but despite this lack of knowledge eager to take photographs of this first-ever photographed by non-military human beings space launch) pointed their cameras at what looked like a rocket.

Yes, that’s right - these eager photographers aimed their cameras at the lighthouse, and not at the real rocket itself!

Earlier, the NASA public relations spokesperson had instructed the visitors to look at the black and white rocket in the distance. The lighthouse markings are also black and white and, additionally, the beacon tower was much closer to the photographers’ spot and looked much larger than the distant rocket.

Imagine the news people’s embarrassment when, after the ear-splitting sound of take off, their “rocket” continued to stand, solidly and immovably, on the ground.

Fortunately, the NASA photographers knew where the real rocket was taking off and shared their pictures with the “rocket-lighthouse” picture takers.

Not surprisingly, even today there are quite a few tourists who do mistake the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse for a rocket. After all, this beacon’s appearance, from a distance, does resemble a rocket.

Cape Canaveral Lighthouse became automated in 1967 and a quarter century later its beautiful Fresnel lens was removed for safety reasons. Why was it removed? The rocket launches were causing very strong vibrations and those vibrations were causing many of the prisms of the Fresnel lens to fall out. Yes, sometimes rockets and nineteenth-century lighthouse lens technology do not mix.

During that Space Center tour I was able to see and photograph the lighthouse. However, I was not able to enter its tower and climb the lighthouse’s 179 steps. The tower, presently the property of the Air Force, is off limits to visitors. Even with our security clearance, our entry to the lighthouse would have required approval from higher level officials.

Still, despite not being able to climb to the beacon’s lantern room, I was in for a very special and unexpected treat. In 1997, when the Coast Guard renovated the lighthouse, they replaced the lantern room and its lighting system. The beautiful first-order Fresnel lens went to a new home, in the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse Museum. The original lantern room was made into a gazebo and placed on the grounds of the Air Force Space and Missile Museum, located at the Launch Complex on Cape Canaveral.

Today, this lantern room-transformed-into-a-gazebo is part of the tour that my husband and I had taken and I had the unexpected treat of being able to stand inside that gazebo. Yes, during my tour of the Cape Canaveral Space Center I not only did get to see the old lighthouse up close, but I also did get to stand in the lantern room of that beautiful beacon. It truly was one of life’s perfect moments.

Our trip was made even more perfect by the serendipitous coincidence when, just a day later, while my husband and I were visiting the Ponce de Leon Lighthouse and its museum, we did get to see the original Cape Canaveral first order Fresnel lens. Yes, just a day after I saw the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse and just a day after I stood in its old lantern room, I did get to see its beautiful heart. It was safe from vibrations and, although separated from its lighthouse, it was not lonesome. It was sheltered among and surrounded by many other beautiful lighthouse hearts.

This story appeared in the Sep/Oct 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.

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