Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Amelia Island Beacon Holds Family History; Woman's Father, Grandfather, Kept Lighthouse

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Amelia Island Beacon Holds Family History; Woman's Father, Grandfather, Kept Lighthouse

Article excerpt

Byline: AMELIA A. HART, Nassau Neighbors staff writer

FERNANDINA BEACH -- The Amelia Island lighthouse has served as a guiding light for seafarers since 1839.

Amos Latham, a Revolutionary War veteran, was the first to keep the light burning.

Now, 166 years later, another member of his family still cares for the light -- his great-great-great-granddaughter, Helen Sintes.

Other members of family have participated in the upkeep of the historic structure, which is the oldest functioning lighthouse in Florida.

Sintes' grandfather, Thomas Patrick O'Hagan, was the keeper from 1905 to 1925. His son and Sintes' father, Thomas John O'Hagan Sr., helped him for 13 years. When Thomas Patrick O'Hagan retired, Sintes' father became the keeper, serving from 1925 until 1954. He was the longest keeper of the lighthouse.

When Sintes and her husband, Frank "Jay" Sintes retired to Fernandina Beach in 1998 from New Orleans, she was eager to return to the "family business."

The couple joined U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 14-1, which is based at the lighthouse. Fernandina Beach has owned the structure since 2001, when the Coast Guard deeded it to the city. But it's still the responsibility of the Coast Guard, which inherited the nation's lighthouses in 1939 when the U.S. Lighthouse Service was closed, to maintain the beacon.

Helen Sintes said she and her husband made their motive for joining the flotilla clear.

"We told them right away, we're joining because of the lighthouse," she said. "That's what I want -- to be back close to that lighthouse."

The Sinteses are two of 13 auxiliary volunteers, divided into four teams, who take care of the lighthouse on a weekly basis.

On a recent overcast Saturday morning, the Sinteses climbed the 59 granite steps to the lighthouse's first landing, then another nine cast-iron steps up to gallery, which provides a sweeping view of the island enjoyed by only a few.

There, they checked the oil on the small engine that rotates the lighthouse lens and checked the electrical systems that power the light. The lighthouse originally had a revolving chandelier of oil lamps powered by sperm whale and lard oil, and later kerosene. It switched to electricity in 1933.

After checking the electrical system, it's up another eight cast-iron steps to the lens room and the Fresnel lens that sits glittering atop the lighthouse

Built by Barbier Benard in Paris, the lens weighs approximately 1,900 pounds, Jay Sintes said. Despite a few chips, experts say it's in pristine condition, Helen Sintes said.

Using lint-free cloths and cotton socks, the couple carefully dusted the lens. The curved, lead crystal prisms of the lens collect and focus the light into an intense beam that can be seen 23 miles out to sea.

The couple also checked the two, 1,000-watt bulbs inside the lens. …

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