Joseph Andreu, Lighthouse Keeper
Ed note: Ghosts abound in St. Augustine. Do you know the stories? Are family legends
part of your heritage? Author Karen Harvey is investigating the cultural history of the “ghost” tales told in St. Augustine. Let us know if you can contribute to the rich history of the city’s spiritual lore.
Maria was tending to winter vegetables in the garden of the lighthouse compound. There was a chill in the December air, but it was not too cold for Joseph to be painting the tower that fateful day in 1859.
She heard a snap, then a bone-chilling bang when body hit tin. As she turned she saw her husband roll from the roof of the oil shed, hitting the stone wall surrounding the compound. She and her three children ran to his body as the scaffolding dangled above them from the remaining rope. They gathered around their fallen loved one to no avail. Joseph died where he worked leaving his wife to carry on the difficult duties of a keeper.
Joseph Andreu and his wife Maria de los Dolores Maestre lived on the complex with three of their eight children. Joseph was the fourth keeper assigned to the St. Augustine light house, the first being his cousin Juan Andreu who illuminated the tower in 1824 making the coquina structure the first lighthouse in Florida.
Caring for the lighthouse was a family affair involving the transportation of whale oil or lard to the top of the tower, trimming the wicks and maintaining the tower. In addition to those duties, detailed logs were kept and fruit and vegetables were grown in the nearby garden. It was a difficult but not unpleasant life for the Andreu family.
The city mourned the death of the lighthouse keeper. Joseph and Maria were both Minorcans who were known in the town. Now Maria, desolate and depressed, climbed the tower carrying up a bucket of lard oil to the top. She felt alone and feared for her future. The night winds blew a light mist across her face as she gazed out to the ocean praying a silent prayer for help. Then, throwing her arms to the elements, she wailed to the winds crying out, “Joseph, what shall I do. What shall I do?”
The answer came as the rain began to fall. Joseph’s voice, drifting with the wind, “Tend the light. Tend the light.”
Visitors to the lighthouse pier often hear the voice of Maria calling in the wind, her anguished cries clear. Sometimes Joseph’s reply can be heard above the gentle lapping of the ripples on the shore.
Maria’s story is true, and she did chose to “tend the light” as her husband advised. She accepted her responsibility and was appointed by the United States government as the St. Augustine lighthouse keeper. She has been recognized as the first Hispanic-American woman to serve in the Coast Guard (or its predecessor services) and the first to command a federal shore installation.
In 1821, when Florida became a territory, the watch tower on Anastasia Island was recognized by the government as a potentially useful lighthouse. After repair work was completed a lens was installed, and in 1824 the light was officially lit by Juan Andreu, a member of the Minorcan community.
“Minorcan” collectively refers to the group of European settlers brought to Florida as indentured servants in 1768.* They remain the core group of St. Augustine. It was understandable that a member of the Minorcan community would be appointed the first lighthouse keeper. They were seamen who knew the Florida shores and the mysteries of the sea.
Juan’s cousin, Joseph Andreu, became the fourth keeper in 1854. The year following his appointment whale oil was replaced by lard facilitating the task by reducing the weight of the fuel and producing a cleaner burn. Joseph lived and worked on the lighthouse compound with his wife Maria de los Dolores Maestre, also of Minorcan heritage, and three of their children.
When the Civil War reached Florida’s borders the light was extinguished in an effort to hinder Union Naval operations off shore. Paul Arnau, the city’s Collector of Customs, supervised the removal and disappearance of the Fresnel lens. With the lens gone, Maria was effectively out of work.
Today St. Augustine’s famous striped lighthouse looms above Anastasia Island neighborhoods. That tower was completed in 1874 replacing the old coquina structure that originating in the early 1700s.
It is believed Maria left St. Augustine around 1862 to live with a daughter in Georgia. However, her story and that of her husband is indelibly woven into the fabric of the oldest city’s history. She had eight children, five of whom were adults at the time of the accident. Perhaps one of her descendents is reading this story and can come forward with a family version of the inspirational tale.
*The term Minorcan refers collectively to a group of indentured servants brought to Florida by Dr. Andrew Turnbull during the British Period (1763-1784). Single men and families were imported from the Island of Minorca, one of three Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean Ocean which, at the time, was a British possession. People from Italy, Greece and Corsica were included in the mass importation. This was the largest single group of European settlers to immigrate as a unit to the New World.
These Caucasian men and women worked an indigo plantation as indentured slaves in New Smyrna until a group of more than 700 marched to St. Augustine in 1777 for sanctuary. They remained in the city when Florida was returned to Spain and were firmly established when the land was turned over to the United States as determined by to the Adams-Onis Treaty. A total of 53 years had elapsed from the day they set foot on Florida soil. The were the established residents of the city and they remain the core-group of St. Augustine.