Cape Canaveral Lighthouse’s remake shines a light on a rich past as well as the civic mindedness of the present.
Rear Adm. James W. Underwood endured the rigors of the U.S. Coast Guard for 37 years, encompassing both commands nearby along the shorelines of Brevard County and across to Alaska.
Yet, these days Underwood is more like a little boy at Christmas, giddy about the plans that are coming together for a transformation several years in the making.
Underwood is president of the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse Foundation, which has guided the remake of the 151-year-old Cape Canaveral Lighthouse. In August, only 16 months after breaking ground, first of three replica keepers’ cottages were completed. That first cottage, scheduled to open in December (as you read this), will serve as a museum — the Keepers’ Cottage Museum. In addition, other surrounding restoration work continues.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Underwood said.
“Lighthouses are so incredible when you look at where they are, the timeframe they were built and how difficult life was back then compared to what we have now. These people worked hard, and when you look at what they constructed in some of the most remote places on the planet, it caught my interest. Lighthouses are fascinating to me.”
Particularly the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse.
Underwood held a Coast Guard command in Brevard from 1992 to 1994. In 2009, after his retirement, he became involved in the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse Foundation, which was created in 2002 to help preserve the lighthouse and provide public access to the national landmark.
A little context: The lighthouse was completed near the beach in 1868, but shoreline erosion forced its relocation inland, where it was reassembled in 1894 atop Florida sand at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, approximately one mile from Cape Canaveral’s eastern tip. It wasn’t an easy task — the structure has iron plating bolted together, and the entire tower is lined with two layers of brick.
The actual light in the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse is an active-duty aid to navigation that is maintained by the Coast Guard, while the lighthouse facility and grounds are owned by the U.S. Air Force’s 45th Space Wing. In 2002, when national security tightened in the wake of 9/11, greatly limiting public access to the lighthouse, the newly formed foundation partnered with the Air Force.
“We are basically supporting the Air Force’s desire to preserve, protect and promote lighthouse to the public, so that the public has an understanding of its history and the history the lighthouse plays with the entire aerospace industry.
“This sentinel, this light, has been flashing for the last 151 years over the seas, out to 18 miles, so ships wouldn’t run aground. It’s been flashing for every rocket launch and for every cruise ship,” Underwood continued.
In 20-second loop cycles throughout the night, the lighthouse flashes twice during 4.8-second spans and then goes dark for 15.2 seconds.
Now, the black-and-white striped lighthouse, at 151 feet tall, promises to put its shine on tourism, thanks to 1934 Coast Guard drawings for a realistic exterior facelift and enough funding to ensure a full renovation up to today’s codes. Notably, all of the underground utilities (sewage/water, storm drainage and others) are now completed for future cottages.
Funding came by virtue of dollars from the Brevard County Commissioners Space Coast Tourist Development Council ($500,000) and the State of Florida ($250,000). Funding requirements called for the establishment of the museum.
“It’s going to be a terrific tourist attraction. … This will work,” said Underwood, pointing to planned tours, a gift shop and the creativity of Becky Zingarelli, co-founder of LightShift Associates LLC and the president of the Museums of Brevard. Zingarelli’s handwork is visible at the Veterans Memorial Center on Merritt Island.
Further, the remakes will extend Lighthouse Foundation’s community reach.
In October, the foundation hosted 100 fourth-graders from Louis Carroll Elementary School in Merritt Island at the lighthouse, as part of an ongoing commitment to share Florida history with youngsters throughout the county.
On Nov. 10, the 2nd Annual Cape Canaveral Lighthouse Half-Marathon and 10K Race were held, providing an “opportunity for people to run out to the lighthouse and see it, and have a lot of fun,” said Underwood, who noted that more than 100 volunteers would participate and added that such events “synergize what we’re trying to do for the community.”
Underwood is a volunteer, too, as are most others who have been involved in bringing the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse’s history back to life.
“As the president of the organization,” Underwood concluded, “I probably do the least compared to everybody else that doing work. And, for me, this is a labor of love.”