Stephen Crane and his companions were certainly not the first to be served by the Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse, and the tower whose beacon they saw was not the first to stand over the area. Mosquito Inlet served as the exit point for two rivers: the Halifax River to the north and the Hillsborough River, later named the Indian River, to the south, and several plantations in the area relied on the inlet to carry their cotton, rice, and oranges to distant ports. In 1830, William DePeyster authored a petition to Congress signed by thirty-eight other plantation and ship owners from Mosquito County relating that they “were suffering in considerable privations, and difficulties, in the trade to this quarter in consequence of there being no Light House at Mosquito Inlet.” Congress responded with funding for a lighthouse on the southern side of the inlet, and on October 31, 1834 Winslow Lewis was awarded the contract for its construction. A 45-foot, conical, brick tower and a dwelling were hastily completed by the end of February 1835 at a cost of $7,494.
The Florida legislation sent a resolution to Congress on February 8, 1847 requesting a new lighthouse for Mosquito Inlet. This request, however, was not acted upon, and the matter would not be revisited until after the Civil War. The Lighthouse Board’s annual report of 1870 stated that the level of commerce passing through Mosquito Inlet did not by itself justify a major light, but since the inlet was positioned roughly at the center of the 110-mile stretch of unlit coastline between the St. Augustine and Cape Canaveral Lighthouses, a lighthouse at the inlet that would serve as both a coastal and a harbor light was merited. The board’s request that same year for $60,000 to construct the lighthouse was not funded.
The Lighthouse Board repeated its request for a lighthouse at Mosquito Inlet each of the next four years, but to no avail. In 1882, the request was renewed, but now the estimated construction cost had risen to $200,000. Congress finally relented, but it did not supply the funding in one lump sum. Rather, payments were painfully strung out over the next five years, hampering work on the light station.
A site for the lighthouse was selected on the north side of the inlet to prevent the southward moving inlet from claiming a second tower. Orville E. Babcock, chief engineer of the sixth lighthouse district, was to oversee construction of the lighthouse. Tragically, on June 2, 1884, the vessel transporting Babcock to shore overturned, and he drowned in the inlet.
Jared Smith assumed responsibility in Babcock’s stead, and work on the project soon commenced. Over a million bricks would be used to construct the lighthouse, which slowly grew to its preordained height of 175 feet, six-and-a-half inches from the ground to the tip of the lightning rod. The only taller brick lighthouse in the country is Cape Hatteras. A brick foundation, extending twelve feet below ground, supports the massive tower which consists of an inner and outer wall connected by spoke-like interstitial walls. The outer wall tapers as it rises, while the inner wall maintains a constant twelve-foot diameter, leaving room for the 194-step, circular stairway.
When the tower was completed, a first-order Fresnel lens, constructed in 1867 by the Parisian firm of Barbier and Fenestre, was assembled in the lantern room. The lens was somewhat unique in that the landward side of the lens was composed of three concave reflecting panels. The light was exhibited for the first time on November 1, 1887, by head keeper William Rowlinski, who had most recently served as first assistant keeper at the Cape Romain Lighthouse.
Rowlinski served at the Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse for just over six years, but even with the separation provided by the detached residences, he still did not get along with some of his assistant keepers. The disputes escalated to the point that the Lighthouse Board swapped Rowlinski with the head keeper at Georgetown, South Carolina. Thomas Patrick O'Hagan thus became the second head keeper at Mosquito Inlet. O’Hagan arrived at the station with his wife and four kids. When he was transferred to Amelia Island twelve years later, his posterity numbered eleven.
Though accurate, the name Mosquito Inlet proved a deterrent to increased settlement in the area. To correct this problem, the name was officially changed to Ponce de Leon Inlet in honor of the famed explorer, and the lighthouse became the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse.
The lighthouse was electrified in 1933, and the first-order Fresnel lens was replaced by a third-order lens relocated from the discontinued Sapelo Lighthouse in Georgia. This new lens rotated producing six flashes in a fifteen second period followed by a fifteen-second eclipse. The Coast Guard assumed responsibility for the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse in 1939 and kept a crew at the station until the lighthouse was fully automated in 1953.
After automation, the station dwellings sat unoccupied until the Town of Ponce Inlet was incorporated in 1963 and began using one of the assistant keeper’s dwellings as a town hall. The Coast Guard abandoned the lighthouse in 1970 in favor a steel skeletal light tower located at their station on the south side of the inlet. At the urging of concerned residents, the Town took over the deed to the property, and the citizens formed the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse Preservation Association to manage the facility.
The third-order lens was removed from the tower in 1971 and shipped to the Coast Guard Academy Museum in New London, Connecticut. After a museum was established at the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse, the third-order lens was returned for display. When in 1982 a newly constructed high-rise condominium obscured the light at the Coast Guard station, the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse was outfitted with a modern optic and reactivated.
The Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse is one of the finest light stations in the United States and merits an extended visit. The dwellings now house exhibits on the lighthouse keepers and families. Even the modern redbrick gift shop is historically significant as it was constructed using the plans for the multi-family dwelling that was never built. A lens exhibit building was constructed on-site in 1995 and now houses the revolving first-order lens from the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse. In 2003, the fixed first-order lens originally used in the Ponce de Leon Lighthouse was also placed on display, after it was returned by Mystic Seaport. Two smaller replica lenses are also on display.
The station’s historical value continues to grow thanks to the tireless efforts of the preservation association. The third-order Fresnel lens was placed back in the lantern room in 2004, providing the public a rare chance to see an active, revolving, Fresnel lens. The lighthouse’s connection to the past was further strengthened when the wreck of the S.S. Commodore, which had carried Stephen Crane, was located and artifacts retrieved from the wreckage placed on display at the station. The lighthouse continues today as a Private Aid to Navigation, maintained by the museum's staff.