October 2, 2020

The St. Augustine Lighthouse Was Home to the First Latina Member of the Coast Guard

St. Augustine is a time capsule into American history. Originally home to the Timucua people, the Spanish colonized St. Augustine in 1565. While indigenous Americans had lived in this region for generations before the Spanish arrived, the beach town remains the oldest living European settlement in the mainland United States. One of the most popular historical attractions is the St. Augustine Lighthouse, which was also home to Maria Mestre de los Dolores Andreu, the first Latina woman to command a federal shore installation and the third female lighthouse keeper in Florida.

1902 Photograph of the St. Augustine Light Station.

photo by: Detroit Publishing Company photograph collection (Library of Congress)

The St. Augustine Lighthouse

Long before Andreu’s birth in 1801, the lighthouse stood as an icon of St. Augustine’s history and architecture. This site, also called the Old Spanish Tower, was built at the site of a 16th-century wooden Spanish tower. The Spanish then converted the wooden tower into a stone structure. Shortly after the United States acquired Florida in 1822, the watchtower took on its third and final role when it was officially upgraded into a lighthouse in 1824.

Andreu was of Minorcan heritage, as were many other Florida residents in her lifetime. (Minorca is a Mediterranean island off the coast of mainland Spain.) Maria Andreu lived in and served the Old St. Augustine Lighthouse, which was made of shells and limestone in Florida’s classic coquina style. In many ways, this lighthouse resembled its original watchtower more than a lighthouse. It had a rectangular shape instead of the octagonal base that many lighthouses have today.

Unfortunately, the coquina tower had a relatively short life as an actual lighthouse. It collapsed into the ocean in 1880 because it was built too close to the shore. Hezekiah H. Pittee oversaw the construction of a second lighthouse stationed further inland, on Northeast Anastasia Island. He was the superintendent for Atlantic Coast lighthouse construction. Pittee finished the new lighthouse in 1874, and it remains the tallest and oldest brick structure in St. Augustine. The 165-foot-tall building is structurally similar to other lighthouses built in that time. However, the lighthouse is unique because of its black-and-white spiral design and bright red lantern gallery.

Jason Titcomb, the chief curator of the St. Augustine Lighthouse, explains this spiral design: “This is a specific paint schematic so when seen by a sailor, they know where in the world they are. That’s why lighthouses are all painted differently.” The original complex housed the lighthouse itself, the keeper’s home, and a storage building. Now, the 5-acre property is a museum.

Maria Andreu and the Women of the Lighthouse

Maria Andreu’s experience in St. Augustine as the first Latina American woman keeper marked a new and important opportunity for women in maritime service.

St. Augustine Lighthouse looking through a wrought iron fence

photo by: JRetherfordHunter/Wikimedia Commons

In 1822, she married Joseph Andreu, two years before the Old St. Augustine Lighthouse was officially converted from a watchtower. Like many other lighthouse keepers’ wives, after marriage, Andreu partnered with her husband in tending to the property. When Joseph died after a tragic fall in 1859, Andreu was qualified to take leadership.

Even though many women did not work in government roles during her lifetime, the St. Augustine community trusted her experience. Local newspapers praised her appointment to the job. Even in the months between Joseph’s death and when she was appointed as keeper, Andreu continued to keep the lighthouse lit without formal recognition.

View of the staircases on the interior of St. Augustine Light Station

photo by: WordRidden/Wikimedia Commons

Andreu’s job was demanding. At the time, lighthouse keepers lived on a meager annual salary of around $350. They often balanced their keeper duties and growing their own gardens for food. The light shone in all weather conditions. Andreu had to manually maintain this light by carrying heavy buckets of lard oil up hundreds of steps in rain and tropical storm winds.

Andreu served as St. Augustine’s lighthouse keeper for three years until the Civil War interrupted. Confederate sympathizers wanted to extinguish the lighthouse to avoid drawing the attention of Union soldiers. The Confederates ordered that the Fresnel lens be removed. When Union forces claimed St. Augustine in 1862, they recovered the lens, which had been buried. The lighthouse was restored to working order and relit in 1867. After this victory, the last few years of Andreu’s life are harder to trace, though historians believe that she spent the rest of her life with her family in Georgia.

The Coast Guard officially formed in 1915 and, years later, they honored Maria Andreu and other lighthouse keepers as members. Maria’s recognition also validated the work of many other women across the country who had long played an important role in helping run lighthouses, such as the spouses and family members of male keepers who helped with maintenance and emergency support.

Exterior of the St. Augustine Lighthouse Keeper's House

photo by: Viktoriya Sorochuk/Wikimedia Commons

Relatively little historical information is known about Andreu outside of her time at the Old St. Augustine Lighthouse. Today, the lighthouse’s museum team works to educate visitors about her extraordinary story. Curators from the lighthouse have collaborated with St. Augustine’s journalists to educate the community about Maria Andreu. The museum has included her in their on-site and online exhibitions. By reclaiming Maria Andreu’s story, the museum demonstrates her influence on generations of Latina women who have served and continue to serve in the Coast Guard.

Retired Lt. Cmdr. Marilyn Dykman was the first Latina woman to pilot a Coast Guard aircraft. She cites Maria Andreu as a role model. In an interview with The St. Augustine Record, Dykman said, “Maria Andreu’s leadership and perseverance as keeper of the lighthouse inspired generations of women to shine as female employees within federal service. Andreu opened the door for women in the Coast Guard like myself.”

Maria Andreu’s legacy, like the light in St. Augustine Lighthouse, shines on.

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Laken Brooks is a current graduate student at the University of Florida. When Laken is not teaching or researching, she enjoys traveling, visiting free little libraries, and going to archives.

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