During recent renovations to the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse and Museum’s administration building which resulted in additional space for our artifacts collection, I uncovered a pile of moldy, partly moth-eaten journals wrapped in twine. They are unsigned, but contain, I am sure, the hand-written memoirs of Thomas Patrick O’Hagan, the Mosquito — later Ponce — Inlet Lighthouse’s second principal keeper (1893-1905) and principal keeper at Amelia Island Lighthouse (1905-1925). Leafing through the books, the names, dates, locations, and wonderful recollections – it’s got to be Keeper O’Hagan. Written in five school composition books, O’Hagan, who served at many other Fifth and Sixth District stations in his almost fifty-year career, had some interesting stories to share about his life at the six very different lighthouses, and through his contacts and his family, other stations. I have transcribed the first “chapter” for you. As a side note, the O’Hagan family has graciously shared with us at here at Ponce Inlet Lighthouse many other family keepsakes, mementoes and pictures. They also have done several extensive oral histories. T.P.’s handwriting is difficult to decipher, and the pages are somewhat brittle after all these years, but I will do the best I can. From time to time, I will take a crack at other sections of these journals.
— John F. Mann, Lead Docent, Ponce Inlet Lighthouse and Museum
March 13, 1927.
It’s a perfect spring morning on the porch of my new little house down the lane from the Amelia Island Lighthouse. The station, located in Fernandina Beach, is just south of the St. Mary’s River, really on the border of Georgia to the north, and the beginning of the east coast of Florida. Now, there’s an interesting story in and of itself. The Amelia Island Lighthouse started its service only a few miles to the north on Cumberland Island in Georgia and then got moved and rebuilt here to Florida. I’ll get to that soon enough.
My son, Thomas John, and his wife, Helen, have been after me of late to write my story, and he says now is the perfect time to do so. I think he just wants me to keep myself busy and out of his hair. For forty-nine years, I never really had the chance to write anything other than keeping the log, making supply requisitions, and posting correspondence to the District Office in Charleston. Now that Thomas John has taken over Amelia, and doing a fine job just like I taught him, he nags at me to take pen in hand before I forget it all. So, let me begin.
Let me tell you a little about myself. Until two years ago I was the Principal Keeper here at Amelia Island, the oldest tower in Florida. My wife, Julia, passed away in 1915. She and I had twelve children. Two of our sons, Thomas and David, are lighthouse keepers and a third, Joseph, served as a mate aboard a U.S. Lighthouse Tender and also on several lightships. Now, I’m not one to fly my own kite, but I don’t think anyone else in the Lighthouse Service can say that four men in one family were on the job, all at once! Actually, five in one family, but not all at the same time, if you count my oldest brother John who served as an assistant at the Morris Island Lighthouse in Charleston and managed Charleston’s Harbor lights for thirty years until he drowned off Sullivan’s Island in 1909. You know, now that I’m thinking about it, I should mention that I’m also related by marriage to Amos Latham, and his son, George. Amos was the head keeper for this tower when it was in Georgia, and came with it when it was moved here to Amelia. George was also keeper here at Amelia before the War to Preserve the Union. The Latham’s were on Julia’s mother’s side.
I was born in the City of Brooklyn, New York, on January 10, 1859 to Denis and Mariah Corr O’Hagan who married and emigrated together from Ireland to Liverpool to New York arriving on September 2, 1850 on the ship, West Point. They had lived all their lives in Tullyniskan Parish, County Tyrone, in the north of Ireland. Like many others, The Great Hunger drove them from the land. I had two brothers and a sister. A few years after I was born, we moved to a farm in New Jersey. For some reason, my father took my brothers, John and William, back to Ireland and they attended school while he worked as a stone mason on a cathedral. When they returned, we all moved south and settled in the Charleston area. When she comes to visit my house, I love telling my little granddaughter, Helen, about me growing up on a farm and milking 18 cows before dawn. Well, maybe it wasn’t exactly eighteen, and maybe it was a little later than dawn, and maybe I helped with the pails and didn’t really milk them.
I joined the Bureau of Lighthouses at seventeen years as a part-time, assistant keeper at Hunting Island, South Carolina, starting the year of our Nation’s Centennial. Two years later, I was appointed Keeper at Fort Ripley Shoals. Both stations are near Charleston. Also in 1878, Julia Catherine Schuppe and I married at Star of the Sea Catholic Church on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, and soon after we moved to the big, old, fine First Assistant’s house at the Morris Island Lighthouse. We stayed at Morris Island for nine years. In July of 1887, we moved to Georgetown Lighthouse, south of Myrtle Beach, where the first four of our children, Mary Jane, Charlotte, Irene and Thomas John were born. In December of 1893, I swapped jobs with William Rowlinski, and became Head Keeper at the Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse, and he went to Georgetown as keeper.
Seven more of our children, Julia, Agnes, William, Edith, Joseph, James and David were born at Mosquito Station. Speaking of that, my son David’s middle name is Cowie. We named after Doctor Cowie of New Smyrna. Yes, I rowed cross the inlet and down river in the station launch to get the doctor, in all kinds of weather, in order for him to look after Julia during difficult childbirths. There was a nurse who helped for the others. Her name was Miss Agony. We laughed about that, but she was a good soul.
In September of 1905, we packed up our brood, and old Bessie our cow, and took the train up to the Amelia Island Light. When I retired Thomas John took over, and David became his assistant keeper that same year. The Bureau must have liked my work, because the week that I retired they put out a very complimentary bulletin to all stations and said I was meritorious. I didn’t think I did anything special, any other keeper wouldn’t do.
Well, I have more than a few stories to share over an almost fifty years of a job, and a good one at that, but I guess I better close now and get another glass of lemonade. Plus, my hand hurts from all the writing. Helen says it’s the arthritis.
Candace was the US Lighthouse Society historian from 2016 until she passed away in August 2018. She worked for 30 years with lighthouse history. She also worked with the National Parks System, and the Council of American Maritime Museums. She was a noted historical author and the most knowledgable person on lighthouse historical information at the National Archives. Books by Candace Clifford include: Women who Kept the Lights, Mind the Light Katie, a History of Thirty-eight Female Lighthouse Keepers and Maine Lighthouses, Documentation of their Past.