Description: The tract of land on which Hillsboro Inlet Lighthouse stands was once part of a large land grant awarded by the English Crown to Wills Hills, the Earl of Hillsborough, who served as Britain’s Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1768 – 1772. Hillsboro Beach, Inlet, and Lighthouse all still carry the Earl’s name, though the spelling has been shortened a bit. Perhaps fittingly, an air of aristocracy can still be felt and seen in the area as one drives along Millionaire’s Mile and catches a glance of the exclusive Hillsboro Club, both located just north of the lighthouse. The founder of Hillsboro Club, which encircles (and limits access to) the lighthouse property, once explained that money was “secondary to social importance and background” when considering a request for membership. But don’t worry, the common man is still permitted a decent view of the lighthouse from the public beach on the south side of the inlet, and public tours of the lighthouse are occasionally offered.
Between 1885 and 1901, the Lighthouse Board petitioned Congress annually for funds to place a lighthouse at Hillsboro Inlet, providing the following justification for the light:
The establishment of a light at or near Hillsboro Point, Florida, would be of great assistance to all vessels navigating these waters. Steamers bound southward, after making Jupiter Inlet light, hug the reef very closely to avoid the current. The dangerous reef making out from Hillsboro Inlet compels them to give it a wide berth, and to go out into the Gulf Stream. Vessels coming across from the Bahama Banks would be able to verify their position if a light were placed here, a difficult matter in case they fail to make Jupiter Inlet. The establishment of this light would complete the system of lights on the Florida Reefs.
The first head keeper of Hillsboro Inlet Lighthouse was Alfred Alexander Berghell, who transferred to the station after service at four other Floridian lighthouses: Pensacola, Dry Tortugas, Rebecca Shoal, and American Shoal. Little is known of his experiences as a lighthouse keeper, but the story of his youth was quite eventful. Born to wealthy parents in Finland, Alfred early on developed a passion for the sea. When Russia’s boy prince, who later would become Czar Nicholas II, visited Finland with his family, Alfred was part of a rowing crew that provided recreational rides for the young prince. Alfred eventually enrolled in the Russian Naval Academy, located in Finland, and graduated as a captain at the age of nineteen.
Alfred’s life would forever change when, at his graduation ball, a Russian officer insulted the girl with whom Alfred was dancing. The two left the hall for a duel, during which Alfred pinned the officer and ripped the Russian insignia off his uniform. Fearing arrest and possible banishment to Siberia, Alfred’s uncle, a senator, arranged for a passport, and Alfred left his homeland before daybreak, never to return. Alfred’s dream of a life at sea was now his, and over the next several years he would sail around the world four times. At the age of thirty, he contracted a serious illness and spent two years recuperating in Australia. The illness left him hard of hearing, making it difficult for him to continue his work as a captain. Following the suggestion of a friend, Alfred sailed to America and began a career in the U.S. Lighthouse Service.
Thomas Knight, a third-generation lighthouse keeper, replaced Alfred Berghell in 1911 and was in charge of the light for the next twenty-five years. During this period, he was awarded the lighthouse efficiency flag for having the best-kept station in the district at least four times, and his service in helping disabled boats and seaplanes was noted on at least eighteen occasions. In 1920, Keeper Knight and Jessie E. Powell, first assistant, reported the fall of a seaplane and assisted in locating the wrecked plane and recovering the bodies of the three men killed in the accident. The following year, Keeper Knight and Judge B. Isler, second assistant, extinguished a forest fire near the lighthouse by cutting a trail, thereby preventing any damage to the station.
Positioned so close to the shoreline, Hillsboro Lighthouse didn’t have much of a buffer to protect it from the tidal surge, which accompanied the occasional hurricane. Keeper Knight noted that a hurricane that struck the station in September 1926 caused the tower to vibrate to such an extent that mercury sloshed out of its trough and mantles in the incandescent-oil-vapor lamp were broken. “From 3 to 8 a.m. on September 19, 1926, solid green seas swept entirely across the reservation, carrying away the boathouse and the decking of the wharf,” reported Keeper Knight. “The bank around the base of the tower was cut away, so that the concrete foundation is exposed to a depth of 8 feet, and at high tide the sea continues to wash around the base of the tower. Fifteen persons whose houses were completely destroyed were given refuge at the station during the hurricane. Damage was also done to the dwelling, and supplies stored in the boathouse were lost.”
The effect of a 1936 hurricane was also recorded by a keeper: “On November 4, at 5 a.m., barometer reading 29.79; at 11 a.m., wind NE, about 70 miles per hour, barometer reading 29.30; at 4 p.m. wind SE. about 50 miles per hour, barometer reading 29.60. Seas swept across entire reservation from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Steps and platforms of dwellings and base of tower were covered under sand; also concrete walks. Grounds were covered with trash and debris. Some mercury was slopped out of tub in tower, but lens operated O.K. No damage was done to Government property.” The station didn’t fare so well in 1947, when another hurricane destroyed the head keeper’s dwelling.
The lighthouse was electrified in 1932, and the resulting increase in power from 630,000 to 5,500,000 candlepower reportedly made the light the strongest in the world at the time. With no resident keepers following the lighthouse’s automation in 1974, the dwellings became beachfront vacation cottages for senior military personnel. For decades, the revolving Fresnel lens continued to cast its beam out over the ocean, until the electric drive mechanism abruptly failed in 1992. As a temporary measure, a modern beacon was installed on the railing outside the lantern room. The two-ton Fresnel lens sat motionless for years, while its future was debated. A report was completed in 1996 that recommended the lens be removed and placed in a museum. The following year, a group of concerned citizens formed the Hillsboro Lighthouse Preservation Society, whose primary goal was to reactivate the Fresnel lens.
In 1998, the Coast Guard announced that the lighthouse would be renovated and the Fresnel lens reactivated. Several hundred pounds of mercury, which by then was of course known to be toxic, were removed from the lantern room, and a ball-bearing system was installed to facilitate the rotation of the lens. A re-lighting ceremony was held for the refurbished lighthouse on January 28, 1999. Everything had been operating smoothly for several weeks, when the ball-bearing system failed, and the lens was again frozen in place. It was back to the drawing board. A new ball-bearing system, designed by Torrington Bearing Co. and capable of supporting twenty tons, was placed beneath the lens and another re-lighting ceremony was held on August 18, 2000.
After receiving repeated complaints from sea turtle advocates that the light from Hillsboro Inlet Lighthouse was allowing predators to prey on hatchlings before they could reach the ocean, the Coast Guard announced in 2012 that they were soliciting public comment on the lighthouse’s value as a navigational aid. Based upon the feedback, the Coast Guard said it would shut down the light completely, obscure portions of the light, or maintain the status quo. The light remains in operation, though it is obscured between 114° and 119°. In 2013, the Coast Guard passed all responsibility for maintenance and operation of the lighthouse to the Hillsboro Lighthouse Preservation Society.
The Hillsboro Lighthouse Museum and Information Center opened in March 2012 in a 400-square-foot space on the grounds of Hillsboro Inlet Park in Pompano Beach. The museum houses artifacts related to the lighthouse and a ten-foot-tall stone statue of the Barefoot Mailman.