We were in the parlor of the keeper’s house at the St. Augustine, Florida lighthouse when my husband whispered to me, “I feel weird.” I thought he meant was sick. The rich dinner? The standing around in the heat? I looked around for somewhere for him to sit but we were standing in an empty corner with nothing close to us. Sensing that I was concerned for him, he shook his head. “Not sick weird. I feel tingling … like something is about to happen.”
We were in St. Augustine as part of a southern road trip that you’ll be hearing about throughout the next few weeks. St. Augustine is in northeastern Florida and is the oldest city in the US continuously occupied by Europeans. It was claimed for the Spanish in 1513 by Ponce de Leon and while it became part of the US in the early 1800s, it maintains a distinctly colonial Spanish vibe to this day.
In the late 16th century, the Spanish placed a watch tower on the Matanzas River, close to the ocean, and towers – watch and light – have been there ever since. It’s on this site that the current iteration of the still-in-operation St. Augustine lighthouse, finished in 1874, stands.
The St. Augustine Lighthouse has gotten quite a bit of publicity lately, due to a ghost hunting reality show. Now I have to say here, as I do in each of my Halloween ghost posts, that I am a skeptic. I want to believe – really I do. It’s just that so far, I’ve found none of it convincing. But I love ghost tours and ghost stories and spooky old houses, so when I found out that the St. Augustine lighthouse offers after-dark ghost tours, I signed us – me and hubby — up.
Our evening started in front of the lighthouse with some history and ghost stories. There’s a ghost in the women’s restroom that likes throwing rolls of toilet paper at people. (Why is it that so many bathrooms are haunted?) There’s a keeper who haunts the lighthouse, children who haunt the grounds, and a woman who walks up invisible stairs in the keepers’ house. After the stories, we were sent in and up the lighthouse: 165 feet, 219 steps.
The only light we had were glow sticks that we were wearing around our necks. The tour guides begged: for safety reasons, please, please don’t use flashlights or flash on cameras in the buildings or, especially, in the lighthouse. The light on the grilled ironwork can make things difficult when climbing the steep stairs.
It was pitch black until we got to the top, where the beacon resides, and we suddenly came into the light. It’s weird that the light doesn’t shine through the open-work iron down further into the lighthouse, but it doesn’t. The beacon has a Fresnel lens, made in France in 1874, with 370 hand cut prisms.
It’s worth taking the ghost tour even if you have no interest in ghosts, just for the spectacular night view from the top of the lighthouse. Sorry there’s no photo, but I’m not a photographer and my point and shoot camera and I just couldn’t capture anything beyond fuzzy lights.
Going downstairs in the dark was harder. I gripped the handrails tightly and stepped slowly and carefully down. At each landing, I’d stop and look up and down, to see if I could see … anything. I didn’t.
The one thing we did encounter, while we were headed down, was a phenomenon that I’ll call Annoying Tourist #1. Someone behind us was using her cellphone as a light. It shined from above us, through the stairs, and its movement made the stairs in front of us look like they were moving.
“Let’s stop and let her pass,” said my husband at the next landing. Several others stopped with us and we all backed toward the wall to let them pass. That seemed to give the guy with her the hint and he asked her to turn off the light. She did, so no more Annoying Tourist #1. But no ghost either.
Once we were all gathered back outside, the guide took us into the 1876 keepers house, to a large, modern open space on the second floor. It was during construction on the house that a tragedy occurred on the grounds: two of the children of the construction superintendent were drowned when a cart that they were playing in rolled into the river. There have been sightings of the girls, and someone – the guide thought that it might be the girls — occasionally ties the shoe strings of visitors together during tours. He pointed to me and said that I was sitting in the spot where it last happened. I looked down at my shoes. My laces remained as I tied them.
After the house (which, like the lighthouse, was kept totally dark) tour, we were let loose to explore the buildings and grounds on our own. Some people went back to the lighthouse. Some people went into the very dark and spooky grounds. “Let’s go back into that room in the house,” said my husband. That would be the Victorian parlor of the keepers’ house, where he had felt something. “I want to see if anything else happens.”
We went back, found our corner, and sat on the floor.
Other tourists came in and out of the room where we sat, so it was like ghost hunting in Grand Central Station, with voices — albeit whispering voices — and clomping feet everywhere. That Grand Central Station feeling culminated with Annoying Tourist #2 and her camera flash. We were sitting in the dark when we head some people come into the room. Pop. A light flashed in my face. “Oh sorry,” one of them giggled. Then did it again.
That was it for us. We decided to call it a night. It was a fun but ghost free night.
The only thing that I’ll fault the lighthouse staff for is that they allowed too many people on the tour. There must have been about 50 of us and for the tour part of the evening, they divided us into two groups. Once we were left to explore on our own, however, all of the people converged. Lighthouse staff recognized it: our tour guide told our group that if we contacted him before our next visit, he’d steer us to less crowded tours. Since they take walk-ups, I don’t know how he could really be sure, though. And since my husband and I had only one day in the area and they only have one tour a night, a different tour wasn’t an option. It would be nice if they limited the size of their tours instead.