A Brief History of the Ponce de Leon Inlet AreaDid you know that many people believe that the famous Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon was the first European to explore the area now known as Ponce Inlet? It's true. According to historic records, Ponce de Leon visited the inlet in the spring of 1513. His stay was very short, however, thanks to a group of Timucua (Ti-Moo-Kwa) Indians that attacked the Spanish shortly after their arrival. Ponce de Leon and his men were forced to leave the inlet that he named Rio de la Cruz (River of the Cross) and continue south down the Florida coast.
The Timucua were group of Native Americans that lived throughout North Florida and South Georgia before Europeans arrived to the New World. Although they shared the same language, they were not a unified tribe. Individual tribes could be friends or enemies depending on how well they got along with each other. Wars regularly broke out between neighboring groups fighting over the same territory and resources.
The Timucua were skilled hunters and gatherers as well as farmers. Homemade weapons like bows and arrows, spears, and clubs were used to hunt bear, deer, turkeys, and other wild game. Seafood was harvested from local rivers and lagoons using nets, canoes, and fish traps. Wild plants were gathered from the local forests and crops such as corn, beans, squash, and melons were cultivated (grown) in large communal fields.
Empty oyster shells, animal bones, broken household items, and other types of trash were dumped outside the village. These prehistoric trash piles grew to great heights as one generation after the next continued to use them. Green Mound, one of the state's largest remaining shell mounds, is located less than three miles north of the lighthouse in the Town of Ponce Inlet. What do you think you would learn about these early people by studying these shell mounds today?
Europeans returned to the inlet in 1565 shortly after the colony of St. Augustine was founded 50 miles to the north. In 1567, a Spanish map maker named Antonio Prado explored the Halifax and Indian rivers area for many days. His experience along the banks of the Halifax and Indian rivers inspired him to change the area's name to Mosquito Inlet. Can you guess why? Nearly forty years later, a Spanish Cartographer named Alvaro Maxia mapped the isolated inlet while in search of an east west passage across the Florida peninsula. This map of Mosquito (now Ponce de Leon) Inlet is perhaps the oldest in existence.
Although the region was never colonized during the First Spanish Period, Mosquito Inlet was visited on a regular basis by shipwrecked sailors, pirates, and privateers until Florida became an English colony in 1763. Unlike the Spanish, the British worked hard to transform Florida into a successful colony by offering generous land grants to those willing to move there.
Attracted by the offer of cheap land, many people moved to East Florida. Numerous plantations were founded along the banks of the Halifax and Indian rivers including the ill-fated New Smyrna Colony founded by Dr. John Turnbull in 1763 with 1400 Minorcan, Greek, and Italian immigrants. By 1770 a wide range of agricultural products including oranges, rice, cotton, lumber, and indigo dye were being shipped to far away ports through Mosquito Inlet. In 1774, the British established a huge bonfire on a sand dune on the north side of the inlet to help ships safely navigate in and out of the dangerous bay.
Mosquito Inlet's first real lighthouse was built in 1835. Located on the south side of the inlet, the 45 foot tall lighthouse was constructed by Winslow Lewis, a man of somewhat questionable building practices. Known to cut corners whenever possible, Lewis had earned himself a somewhat dubious reputation within the Lighthouse community. Concerns regarding the quality of the tower's construction were confirmed less than year after its completion when a hurricane struck Mosquito Inlet in November, 1835. The violent storm surge destroyed the sand dunes surrounding the light station, undermined the tower, and washed the keeper's house into the sea. With nowhere to live, the Lighthouse Keeper William H. Willams was forced to relocate with his family to St. Augustine. Did you know that New Smyrna Beach still suffers from severe beach erosion caused by passing hurricanes? It's true!
The following month brought even more destruction to the abandoned lighthouse when a band of Seminole warriors led by Chief Cowacoochee (Co-Wa-Coo-Chee) attacked the tower on December 26, 1836. Although the Seminoles failed to burn the tower down, they did manage to break many of the windows and damage the tower's lantern. Many people reported that Chief Cowacoochee was later seen wearing one of the lantern's reflectors as a headdress at the Battle of Dunnlawton. Unable to repair the damaged lighthouse due to the Second Seminole War, the keeper reported that tower finally fell into the sea in April, 1836. Amazingly, the Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse was never even lit.
Did you know that Mosquito Inlet was one of the Confederacy's most important ports during the Civil War? It's true! The South used small, fast ships called blockade runners to smuggle in war supplies like guns, ammunition, and medicine for their army to use. Mosquito Inlet became such a popular smuggling port the United States Navy set up blockade to prevent ships from going in or out of it. One of Florida's only Civil War battles occurred right on river bank in front of the old stone fort in New Smyrna. Seven Union sailors were killed during the battle including the captains of two navy gunships.
Although the Civil War was a time of extreme hardship throughout the south, prosperity quickly returned to the Mosquito Inlet and Halifax River area shortly after the war ended. Attracted by the promise of cheap land, new residents came to Florida by the thousands in hopes of starting a better lifeMany of the Halifax region's most historic structures were constructed during the late 1800s including the Mosquito (Ponce) Inlet Light Station. Illuminated for the first time on November 1, 1887, the 175 foot tall tower housed a massive first order Fresnel (Fray-nell) lens that could be seen from more than 18 miles away. In addition to the lighthouse, the light station also featured a number of service buildings including three keepers' dwellings with detached woodshed/privies, an oil storage house, a dock, and a boat house. It was, and still is, one of the largest light stations in the country.
The lighthouse gained national fame in 1897 when the Cuban filibustering ship the S.S. Commodore sank a few miles off shore with author Steven Crane aboard. Guided by the light from the Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse, Crane survived more than thirty hours on the open sea before making it safely to shore. One of the three other men in the small lifeboat did not. The famous author wrote about the terrifying experience in the famous short story The Open Boat
The early 1900s witnessed a dramatic increase in both the area's population and the cost of land as more and more people moved to the Sunshine State. Investors developed large tracts of land all along the Halifax River in hopes of striking it rich. Many housing developments featured lavish entrances and were given names like Daytona Highlands, Seabreeze, and El Pino Parque to attract buyers. Local residents even decided to change the name of Mosquito Inlet to Ponce de Leon Inlet in 1927. Why do you think the name was changed? Was it a good idea?
The Ponce De Leon Inlet Light Station remained a manned aid to navigation until 1953 when the Coast Guard automated the light. The Light Station's last resident keeper departed a short time later. The lack of maintenance took its toll on the historic lighthouse and things quickly began to fall apart. The light station was deeded to the Town of Ponce Inlet in 1972 after being declared surplus property.
The Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse Preservation Association was founded in 1972 to assist the Town in the restoration and management of the historic Ponce Inlet Light Station. Countless hours of hard work by the Association's volunteers repaired the damage created by years of neglect and vandalism and full restoration was begun. In 1982, a new tower balcony replaced the crumbling one, and the light in the lantern was restored to active service. The three keepers' dwellings are now utilized as museum exhibit areas. The Light Station was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1998 and continues to operate as an active aid to navigation to this day.
Cool Lighthouse Facts
- The Ponce Inlet Lighthouse stands 175 feet tall and is the tallest lighthouse in Florida.
- There are 203 steps to the observation (gallery) deck and 213 steps to the Lantern Room.
- The Ponce Inlet Light Station is one of only 12 lighthouses in the country to have earned the prestigious designation as a National Historic Landmark.
- The Lighthouse originally housed the fixed (non-blinking) 1st order Fresnel lens now on display in the Lens Exhibit Building.
- The beacon at the top of the tower flashes six times in 15 seconds followed by a 15 seconds eclipse.
- The tower's light can be seen for more than 18 nautical miles out to sea.
- The Ponce Inlet Light Station will celebrate its 125th Anniversary on November 1, 2012.
- The Ponce Inlet Lighthouse is painted venetian red because the Lighthouse Inspector thought is was too beautiful to paint when it was completed in 1887.