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History of the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse

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Like the Spanish colonial sailors before them, the shipping interests of the United States needed to exploit the natural landmark of Cape Canaveral.

In 1843, the U.S. government selected Cape Canaveral as the site for a permanent lighthouse. The eastern tip of the Cape made a natural choice for this vital aid to navigation. Construction of the original Cape Canaveral lighthouse, made of brick, was completed in 1847.

The first permanent lighthouse keeper, Captain M.O. Burnham, arrived at Cape Canaveral in 1853 and tended the Cape Canaveral lighthouse until his death in 1886. Burnham's contributions to the area's history were many, and included the first modern exploration and mapping of the Cape Canaveral area.

Burnham established a permanent household around the lighthouse, and also undertook a number of agricultural projects, including an orange grove. He was the first American to navigate the Banana River, which he named after the wild bananas growing on its banks.

Loyal to the Confederacy during the Civil War, Burnham complied with orders of from the secretary of the Confederate Navy that the Cape Canaveral lighthouse be dismantled to hinder Union navigation. The lighthouse was completely dismantled, and Burnham packed the sensitive lighting mechanisms in wooden crates. These were then buried near his orange grove on the Banana River.

Following the Civil War, Burnham turned over this hardware to the U.S. government, and requested that permission be granted to rebuild the lighthouse. The U.S. government decided to erect a brand new lighthouse rather than rebuild the old one.

The new lighthouse was completed in 1868. Instead of brick, it was constructed of wood. The wood was later reinforced with a combination of steel plating, brick and concrete to help the structure better weather the elements.

In 1886, the ocean began to dangerously erode the sand near the lighthouse, and a decision was made to relocate the structure about 1.5 miles inland. The tedious task of dismantling and moving the lighthouse was begun in 1892 and completed in 1894.

The ocean, however, was never able to claim the sand around the first structure. The actual base of the original lighthouse has been preserved, and is clearly visible atop the dune line just north of what is today Launch Complex 46 on the eastern tip of Cape Canaveral.

Also surviving is the Cape Canaveral lighthouse itself, which today stands on the site to which it was relocated over 100 years ago. The lighthouse was actually used as a forward observation point for many of the early missile and rocket launches from Cape Canaveral, and was often mistaken as a rocket by tourists anxious to witness a launch while visiting the region.

Although it is not used to support launch operations today, the Cape lighthouse is still maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard. A major renovation was completed in 1997, and the top of the lighthouse, as well as its lighting equipment, was completely replaced.

The original roof of the lighthouse was made into a gazebo, and is currently on display at the Air Force Space and Missile Museum, located at Launch Complex 26 on Cape Canaveral Air Station. The lighthouse itself is still lit on a daily basis, and is maintained as an official navigation reference for aircraft and ships.

Cape Canaveral Lighthouse Photo Gallery

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