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Keeping a lighthouse in 1859 was no easy task in and of itself and most particularly when the lighthouse was situated on an 18 mile strip of land that was not easily accessible.  Add to that the necessity of growing food and raising and educating 12 children as well, all for $400 a year. This is what one Minorcan woman, Maria Andreu did after her husband who had been the lighthouse keeper, died.

The Old Spanish Lighthouse in St. Augustine, Fl built in 1700 aiding mariners for 162 years.
The St. Augustine Lighthouse built in 1700 aided mariners for 162 years.  In 1862, during the Civil War, the light was extinguished for fear it would provide aid to the Union Navy.
The first lighthouse was erected nearly 450 years ago when Don Pedro Menendez claimed Forida as part of Spain in 1565.  Initially they were built as lookout stations providing a warning signal to mariners that a sandy shoal was nearby.

Gradually the lighthouses were transformed into beacons of safety for marine traffic.  Because the keeper's job was a most difficult one and the lighthouses were in isolated areas, the keepers of lighthouses were held in very high regard by their local community and government.

According to Isaiah William Penn Lewis, engineer to the U.S. Light-house Survey:

“The best keepers are found to be old sailors, who are accustomed to watch at night, who are more likely to turn out in a driving snow storm and find their way to the light-house to trim their lamps. Because in such weather they know by experience the value of a light, while on similar occasions the landsman keeper would be apt to consider such weather as the best excuse for remaining snug in bed.”
Rendering aid and relief to mariners in distress was also a part of the daily responsibility of the keepers.  As the Secretary of the Treasury Levi Woodbury said in 1835:
“Civility should be enjoined as a duty to strangers wishing to examine the Lights, and, in case of shipwrecks near, every practical effort required to be made to render reasonable and efficient relief, and all due vigilance exercised to detect and expose every breech of the revenue laws in his neighborhood.”
During the early 19th century the lighthouse keeper's responsibilities were considered important enough that only the president of the United States could appoint and dismiss keepers.  Often times the keepers held other jobs in order to earn more income and their spouse or children would assume many of the duties of the lighthouse.

Maria's husband, Juan was the first Hispanic-American to serve in the Coast Guard and its predecessor services while in his role as lighthouse keeper from 1824-1845 and 1854-1859.  It was during these years that Maria received her experience maintaining the structure.

The St. Augustine Examiner reported on Dec. 10, 1859:

"Monday last ... (Joseph Andreu) was engaged in white washing the tower of the Light House" when the scaffold gave way and he fell 60 feet, dying almost instantly."
The article also reported that Juan was a "worthy light-keeper at this port", that he was 60 years of age and a Catholic, "a native of this City...highly esteemed for many hospitable and social virtues."

According to Kathleen McCormick, director of the lighthouse's museum collections, the city rallied around Maria at that time, who had five or six children still remaining at home with her, to ensure she would be appointed to the position of keeper.  Once awarded the position she became a government-paid employee and technically, a Coast Guard member.

The Coast Guard website says the title of lighthouse keeper was an important one for women because those were some of the first non-clerical U.S. government jobs open to them.

"Anybody who lives in a lighthouse site needs to know how to take care of it ... if the keeper is sick or away," McCormick said. "Maria would have known how to take care of the place."
For three years Andreu stood watch over the St. Augustine Lighthouse until the light was extinguished in 1862 due to the Civil War.  It was feared that the light would provide aid to the Union Navy so Maria and her children moved away from the lighthouse, but remained in the area.

The lighthouse's beacon was extinguished, but Maria Andreu's personal beacon was not as her courage and fortitude lit a path for generations that followed.

“Maria Andreu’s leadership and perseverance as keeper of the lighthouse inspired generations of women to shine as female employees within federal service through her beacon of light,” said retired Lt. Cmdr. Marilyn Dykman, the first Hispanic American woman to pilot a Coast Guard aircraft. “Andreu opened the doors for women in the Coast Guard like myself and will carry over throughout many generations to come.”
The ruins of the St Augustine Lighthouse built in 1700 shown with tourists circa 1900.  The ruins became a popular beach attraction for tourists between the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Nothing more is known of Maria Andreu's whereabouts after her government service ended in 1862.  According to Karen Harvey, author of Daring Daughters: St Augustine's Feisty Females, 1565-2000 it was believed that Maria left St. Augustine to live with a daughter in Georgia.

The Lighthouse museum plans on offering an exhibit on Maria sometime in April or May of this year when it marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

The lighthouse structure was not used again after the civil war and fell to ruin.  The photo above, from the St. Augustine Lighthouse Museum shows tourists sitting on the ruins of the old tower and was taken around 1900 according to their records.  During the late 1800s and early 1900s tourists staying at the Flagler Hotel had access to the cottages and lighthouse area and would regularly take trolley, boat or carriage rides to the site.  It became one of the more popular oceanfront attractions for visitors at the time.

~ Coast Guard Compass: Sentinel of the light

~ St Augustine Record: - She kept the light burning

~ Florida Times-Union: How a Hispanic woman made Florida history at St Augustine lighthouse

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