The entrance to Pensacola Bay was first lit from June 23, 1823 until 1825 by the lightship AURORA BOREALIS. Pensacola was considered to be an important port because of its large deep-water bay (Pensacola Bay) and it was the proposed location of the only U.S. Naval Station in the Gulf of Mexico. The lightship had previously marked the entrance to the Mississippi River, but it was moved to Pensacola when a lighthouse replaced it.
Maintaining a lightship was an expensive proposition. Early lightships provided a weak light, and they were unreliable during storms (sea conditions were too rough at Pensacola and so the lightship was moored just inside the Bay even during good weather) and unavailable when under repair. For these reasons, the lightship was a temporary measure in place only until a lighthouse could be built.
An Act of Congress in March 1823 authorized the construction of the lighthouse and payment of keepers' salaries. One provision of the Act was that no money could be spent until Florida was ceded to the United States.
It took only two months to build the tower. An adjacent keeper's dwelling was completed only a few days later. It was located on a 40-foot hill just west of the old Spanish fort named Fort San Carlos de Barrancas in an area that had been the fort's cemetery years before. It was the fourth lighthouse erected in Florida. The tower was only 30 feet tall and was first lit on December 20, 1826. Complaints about the lighthouse started early. The workmanship and quality of material used for the tower left much to be desired. Its low height and nearby trees blocked the light from view from some directions to seaward. Improvements to the reflector lenses and windows in 1847 failed to improve the quality of the light sufficiently.
Because of complaints about the old tower, the present tower was authorized in 1854. It was first lit on January 1, 1859. It was located on the same ridge as the original lighthouse, but another 1,600 feet further west where it could be used to establish a range for crossing the Bay's entrance bar. The present lighthouse is 160 feet tall (measured from the base of the ground to the center of the 1st order Fresnel lens), making it the fourth tallest brick lighthouse in the nation.
At the start of the Civil War, Pensacola and the mainland were taken over by Confederate forces while across the bay, Fort Pickens was in Union hands. Confederate lighthouse authorities removed the lens and carefully packed lighthouse supplies since the lighthouse fell within Confederate military lines and was put off limits to the civilian keepers. Despite promises from the Confederate high command, officers ordered the lighthouse broken into. Many of the lighthouses supplies, including much of its valuable illuminating oil was requisitioned for war use. As part of the siege of Fort Pickens, the lighthouse was used as a lookout tower and cannons and mortars were emplaced in the immediate vicinity. On November 22 and 23, 1861 the opposing sides exchanged canon fire. The lighthouse was struck several times by Union shot, although the damage was probably unintentional. The Union gunners reported that a great deal of their rifled cannon shot flew erratically during the bombardment.
Later in the war, Pensacola was evacuated by the Confederates. During their withdrawal, the Confederates burned many government buildings, and supplies at the Navy Yard, but they left the lighthouse undamaged. In 1863, the lighthouse was relit using a smaller 4rd order lens. It wasn't until April 1, 1869 that a 1st order lens was back in operation at the lighthouse.
The lighthouse suffered from two lightning strikes in 1875, the keeper's dwelling roof damaged by a tornado in 1877 and the Charleston Earthquake of 1886 stopped the station's pendulum clocks and made a sound in the tower "... a rumbling, as if people were ascending the steps, making as much noise as possible."
The Pensacola Lighthouse originally used a clockworks mechanism to power the rotation of its lens. In 1939, the light was electrified when the Army ran power lines out to the tower. The lighthouse continued in manned operation until September 8, 1965.
In 1998, the foundation of keeper's dwelling of the 1828 lighthouse was uncovered during preliminary planning work for a new edition of the "Navy Lodge". The Lodge, which sits on a hill about midway between Fort Barrancas and the 1858 lighthouse, was the site of the first Pensacola lighthouse and the 1890's Fort Barrancas Range Light. Workers found and identifed more than 44,000 artifacts from the site, including the brick foundation piers from the two structures previously named, and the contents of trash pits from before, during and after the lighthouse's occupation period. Additional historical research by Neil Hurley found that the keeper's dwelling at this location stood at least until the start of the Civil War, although the 1st tower was taken down sometime before. Some of the artifacts from the dig will be displayed in an exhibit planned for the new Lodge buildings. This photo shows work near the parking lot. This was one of many areas excavated prepatory to the construction of a new wing of the Navy Lodge. This close-up shows a glass bottle that was found near the foundation of the Keeper's dwelling. The design of the new Navy Lodge addition was altered to have less impact on potential archeological remains as a result of previous digs.