By day, the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse, on a Coast Guard base where Florida’s Loxahatchee River flows toward the Atlantic, is an elegant burnt-orange baton that rises 108 feet above the town of Jupiter, in Palm Beach County, on the easternmost point of the Sunshine State.
It stands on a natural sand dune – which is why it’s there: In the 1840s, a federal commission was tasked with building lighthouses where shipwrecks could be prevented. Here, a beacon could deter ships from running aground on the shallow coast. A lighthouse maintained by the military could also help defend Jupiter Inlet – originally a meeting place for native tribes – from invaders.
Construction on the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse began in 1854 with $35,000 being set aside. Work would be halted from 1856 to 1858 because of the Third Seminole War. The lighthouse was lit on July 10, 1860, at a final cost of approximately $61,000, including a state-of-the-art Fresnel lens manufactured in Paris.
It went dark during the Civil War, to ward off federal ships: Two assistant lightkeepers sympathetic to the Confederacy removed the light’s rotation mechanism and buried it in a nearby canal. Jupiter Inlet was relit in 1866. The top of the brick tower has glowed by night ever since, despite damage to one of the lenses from a 1928 hurricane.
To tour the museum, climb the tower’s 105 cast-iron stairs that spiral to the lantern room.
Some things never change. Look below and you’ll see preserved Indian mounds on the site that are filled with oyster shells and artifacts. Look outward and you’ll see yachts, freighters and other ships glide in Jupiter Sound. Look across the channel to the barrier island and the ocean beyond it. Look behind you and you’ll see the original Fresnel lens – one of just 13 still used in American lighthouses.
The Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse may be on the National Register of Historic Places, but it still earns its keep.
These days, the lamp inside it is a 1,000-watt photogenic cell. At night, still channeled through the old Fresnel lens, its beam is visible 24 miles out to sea. By air, pilots and passengers can see the light from 30 to 50 miles away.
You can visit the beacon and grounds on a guided daytime tour: $9; $5 for ages 6-18.
Note: From May through December, the site is closed Mondays for repairs and upkeep that help this 155-year-old beauty retain its glow.