By Linnea Brown
JUPITER - Local historian and author James Snyder is filling in the gaps of the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse's history.
After spending a year and a half pouring through court records in Key West and documenting his findings, Mr. Snyder has released his latest masterpiece: a new book that unveils rich details of a previously untold story.
Published by Pharos Books, "A Light in the Wilderness: The Story of Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and The Southeast Florida Frontier," uses information from historical records, photographs, maps, journal entries and letters to provide a glimpse into the actions and intentions of the many people embedded in the structure's history.
Mr. Snyder, 69, explained that while he touched briefly on the Lighthouse's history in his previous book, "Five-Thousand Years on the Loxahatchee," he felt there was more to be said.
"My instincts told me that since this was the oldest public building in all of southeast Florida, there was a whole lot more to that story, especially with episodes like the light apparatus being kidnapped during the Civil War," he said. "I was right. I probably have a two-foot high pile of original material (pertaining to) the construction of the Lighthouse and its early years."
While a fire in the commerce department in 1920 destroyed many of the Lighthouse's records, Mr. Snyder uncovered new secrets by studying original letters from Gen. George Meade leading up to the structure's construction. Gen. Meade was thought to be the builder of the lighthouse.
"One big (discovery) is that George Meade, the man who everybody thinks built the lighthouse, really didn't," he said.
Gen. Meade, who commanded the battle of Gettysburg in the Civil War, was a lieutenant in the Topographical Engineers (the forerunner of the Army Corps of the Engineers). While he surveyed the area and also designed the Lighthouse, he was transferred out of the Jupiter area by 1856, Mr. Snyder said.
Meanwhile, the man who physically built the Lighthouse was Edward A. York, a previously unknown sea captain of a supply ship that came to Jupiter from a Philadelphia Navy yard, loaded with bricks and mortar.
"When he got here, he supervised a crew of 20 men - including masons, blacksmiths and carpenters - and then went up into the Lighthouse and calibrated its' intricate Fresnel lens," Mr. Snyder said. "This was really a significant discovery; he's the true father of the Lighthouse."
Another surprise uncovered in research was a negation of the previous belief that workers spent seven years building the structure, Mr. Snyder said.
"It did take seven years for its authorization, but the building process really only got started in the winter of 1859, and not much was done at all," he said. "The serious building effort began in January of 1860, and they had that baby up by June. Our dear Lighthouse was actually built in five months."
Another "gap" in the history was the Civil war period, when Union gunboats patrolled outside of Jupiter Inlet because the confederates were using all of the major inlets on the East coast to smuggle bales of turpentine and cotton to Nassau for trading purposes, Mr. Snyder said.
However, unbeknownst to many, union officials launched a blockading squadron to chase them down. Headquartered at the naval base in Key West, the squadron's 21 ships wrapped around the coast of Florida.
"During the course of the war, 58 confederate ships were captured in all sorts of dramatic clashes, either in Indian River or Jupiter Inlet," Mr. Snyder said. "Nobody knew any of this (until now)."
Some of his most groundbreaking discoveries stemmed from gunboat logbooks in the national archives, he said.
"We already knew that in 1861, a confederate group of four vigilantes raided the Lighthouse, sent the keeper packing and kidnapped enough of the light so it wouldn't work anymore - but what did they do with it?" he asked.
"The common wisdom is that the goods were only discovered after the war was over, and that the light was relit in 1866," he said. "But in fact, the gunboat Sagamore found the light in the backyard of the man who kidnapped the light, James Paine, who buried it in the woods behind his house in St. Lucie."
Of course, Mr. Snyder uncovered this only after following a trail of clues to the Yale University library where he discovered a goldmine: records kept by Walter Scofield, a then-23-year-old assistant surgeon.
"There, in the library, was the day-by-day diary of (Mr. Scofield), who had left medical school to serve on the Sagamore from 1862 through 1864," Mr. Snyder said. "Every day that the Sagamore was out in Jupiter Inlet, Walter Scofield (recorded what was happening), like telling us exactly when the Lighthouse apparatus was discovered."
In the book's epilogue, Mr. Snyder also reveals spine-tingling details about several mysteries in the Lighthouse's history - straight from the mouths of two psychics and a medium.
Mr. Snyder has already written three successful books on local history. His "Life and Death on the Loxahatchee, The Story of Trapper Nelson," won the Florida Publishers Association silver award for the best non-fiction book of 2002, and "Five Thousand Years on the Loxahatchee: a Pictorial History of Jupiter and Tequesta," is also popular.
Published in 2004, his recent "Black Gold and Silver Sands: a Pictorial History of Agriculture in Palm Beach County," uses more than 250 photographs and journal excerpts to provide a view of the area's earliest pioneer farming families in the Everglades.
A lifelong journalist, Mr. Snyder spent more than 30 years in Washington, D.C., as a writer, editor and chairman of a magazine publishing company before moving to Jupiter.
He now resides on the Loxahatchee River and is active in several river preservation groups. In his free time, he enjoys volunteering as a Lighthouse docent for the LRHS.
This is his sixth book.
His next will be historical fiction, he said.
Released in October, the new, 288-page book is currently available from the lighthouse gift shop and various area bookstores for $27.95.
For more information, contact the LRHS at (561) 747-6639.