Exploring Florida Keys Lighthouses

By: Karuna Eberl

Nature’s conveyor belt of the sea, the Gulf Stream flows northeast along the Keys on its way to the East Coast and Europe. For centuries, ships have used this route for trade, and for equally as long they have run aground on the Key’s treacherous shoals and reefs. The Keys lighthouses played a vital role aiding in the safe passage of ships and their crews, and today still hold the tales of the many dynamic and stalwart keepers and their families.

A Feat of Engineering

When the Spanish relinquished control of Florida in 1821, work on constructing lighthouses began. Over the next six decades, eleven lighthouses would be built, and sometimes rebuilt time and again. Eight were erected on shoals in the open water, miles from land. Strong currents and frequent storms made these some of the most difficult engineering accomplishments of their time. Eventually the lighthouses protected a section of ocean more than 200 miles long, from the isolated Dry Tortugas up past Key Largo into Biscayne Bay. The first were illuminated with lard oil, but by the 1850s Fresnel lenses came on the scene with prisms to magnify and focus the light, greatly increasing the lamps’ the visibility.

The Keepers

Each lighthouse was inhabited by keepers, charged with illuminating the light each night. The life of a Keys keeper was one of danger, isolation and incredible beauty. They could see land in the distance, but had no way to communicate with those ashore, except for hailing down a passing ship to deliver a message. Each had a small boat, yet the seas were not passible during many periods of weather. It might be weeks between any human interaction, and sometimes that was to heroically rescue passengers from a sinking vessel nearby. But on serene days, they wrote of incredible views, watching seabirds nest and sharks swim by in crystal blue waters. Life eventually changed. Radio broadcasts began in 1920, but it wasn’t until 1929 that keepers received radios, a generous Christmas gift from a Key West woman. Gradually the lighthouses became electrified and then fully automated, and the keepers moved ashore. But their towers still stand as beacons, fishing holes and snorkeling meccas — photogenic sentinels to the many stories of triumph and tragedy along the Keys reefs.

Visiting Today

Today most of the lighthouses have become popular fishing and diving areas because of their proximity to the reef. The ones offshore can be visited by boat, though climbing or entering them is prohibited. The Key West Lighthouse in downtown Key West is open to the public, with a museum and stairs leading up to the tower. Garden Key and Loggerhead lighthouses are both part of Dry Tourtugas National Park, accessible by ferry or seaplane.

The Lighthouses

Fowey Rocks Lighthouse

The treacherous Fowey Rocks earned their name after the British man-of-war H.M.S. Fowey, which ran aground there in 1748. It was only one of hundreds of ships unsuspectedly dashed into the jagged reef. Construction took $175,000 and an arduous four years, starting in 1874. While building the tower, the crew lived on a wooden platform at the lighthouse, and learned firsthand why a beacon was needed there. Twice ships struck the reef, narrowly missing the workers. The remains of one, a steamer, can still be seen there today. Once complete, the lighthouse remained manned for almost 100 years, starting with the first assistant keeper Jefferson Browne, who spent his free time studying law and went on to be the attorney for Monroe County before being appointed as Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court. Other keepers helped save the lives of many boaters in the area, rescuing them from sinking yachts, occasionally in exceptionally heroic fashion. By the 1960s, the monthly salary was up to $107, with the added bonus of a steady supply of mackerel and lobster from friendly local fishermen. The last keeper left in 1974, when it became fully automated. Nine years later, in 1983 the remains of the H.M.S. Fowey were finally located and identified on the reef.

Carysfort Reef Lighthouse

Some believe Carysfort Reef Lighthouse is haunted, and perhaps for good reason. Its name came from the 1770 grounding of the British frigate H.M.S. Carysfort, which was one of the luckiest ships to hit the reef. It did not sink, but instead went on to four decades of service, including fighting against the U.S. during the Revolutionary War. Others were not so fortunate on the reef, however. The first safety beacon in the area was the lightship Ceasar, which ran aground shortly before reaching its station at Carysfort. Several years later, the Spanish slave ship Guerrero sank nearby, killing 41 African prisoners. A grim fate was also in store for the crew of the next lightship, the Florida. In 1837 they traveled ashore to tend to a garden used for supplemental rations, where they were killed by a Seminole ambush. Plans for the actual lighthouse were underway, but slow in solidifying. During the 1830s, Florida reefs claimed several hundred vessels, nearly 20 percent of which were at Carysfort. The lighthouse was finally lit in 1852, and undoubtedly saved many ships and their crews from ill fates. The last living keepers went to shore in 1962, when the house became automated. The structure remains today, but its beacon now shines from a nearby 40-foot tower.

alligator-reef-lighthouseAlligator Reef Lighthouse

The brand-new 86-foot schooner U.S.S. Alligator set sail from Boston for Africa in 1821 on a mission to both intercept illegal slave ships and find suitable land for a colony for freed American slaves. Its captain and crew succeeded in both, freeing prisoners from at least six ships and securing land that would become Liberia. The next year, the Alligator dispatched to Cuba, where its crew fought pirates and freed ships being held hostage. But on return, they ran aground in the Keys. All of their heroism couldn’t free the vessel from the reef, so there it stayed, along with its name. The Alligator Reef Lighthouse first shone in 1873, and from then on the keepers endured some woolly times. In 1918 one braved 10 miles of shark-infested waters to rescue two men trapped in a sea plane. In 1935 the keeper and his assistant rode out a most devastating hurricane. Two-hundred-mile-per-hour winds shattered all of the windows and ripped off the doors. They were the lucky ones, however, as back on land 423 people died in the Upper Keys, nearly 25 percent of the population. It wasn’t always a difficult life, though, as some keepers wrote about serene days full of lazy barracuda, clear water and spearfishing for lobster and yellowtail. The lighthouse still stands but the beacon has been moved to a nearby steel structure.

Sombrero Key Lighthouse

Several of the Keys lighthouses were constructed by engineer George Meade, a gentleman whom later became known as General Meade, the man who led Union forces to victory over Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg. He oversaw Carysfort and Sand Key lighthouses, and attempted structures at Rebecca Shoal, before completing his final and tallest, Sombrero Key, which came to light in 1858. Keepers here had similar difficulties to their peers at the other reef lighthouses, especially when it came to rough seas. A first assistant capsized in a squall in in 1873. He was within sight of the tower, but since he was in their only boat, the others could not reach him. Another first assistant collapsed while cooking, and died shortly thereafter. The keeper could not flag down any ships, and eventually had to send the body to sea, spending nine more days alone before help arrived. A 1910 hurricane drove a French Steamer onto the reef by the lighthouse, and miraculously all 600 passengers were rescued. By 1960 the lighthouse was automated and the legacy of the keepers came to a close. In 2015 the light turned off after shining for more than 150 years, but it didn’t go far — just to a nearby tower. The lighthouse still stands, and today recreational boaters frequent the reef for its particularly good diving and snorkeling.

American Shoal Lighhouse

The nearest land to American Shoal is more than 5 miles away, visible only as a splotch on the horizon from this remote outpost. This sort of extreme isolation was an issue for many lighthouse keepers, and could lead to mental derangements of all sorts. In 1926 when Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover learned the keepers had no radios, he decried their state to the press, saying that they over anyone should be entitled to these modern devices. Despite his statement, it would be three more years before they got radios, though not from the government but as Christmas presents from a generous woman in Key West. Soon after, the keepers wrote of the wonders of listening to Sunday sermons and choirs singing, hearing boxing matches and presidential election results — the first of which was won by none other than Hoover. Keepers at American Shoal also recalled the discomforts of life here, such as hand cranking the 23-foot boat to the second story, relying on the oven for heat, and using an outhouse overhanging the water. Upon automation in 1963, the lighthouse remained vacant until 1980, when the Coast Guard moved back in during the Mariel crises to oversee the mass of Cubans refugees coming by boat. Most recently, in 2016 American Shoal Lighthouse was in the news for being the brief home to 21 Cuban refugees who landed there after successfully negotiating the 90-mile float.

Key West Lighthouse

John Simonton purchased Key West from a Spaniard for $2,000 back in 182key-west-lighthouse1. He realized the Keys potential as a lucrative trading outpost and soon plans for lighthouses across the Keys were underway. The first one completed was in Key West. Keeper Michael Mabrity set it alight for the first time in 1826, unknowingly starting a lighthouse dynasty for his family that would span the next 85 years. When Michael died of yellow fever in 1832, his wife Barbara took over, while also raising their six children. She weathered the hurricanes of 1835, 1841, 1842 and 1843, but in 1846 a more powerful storm left most of Key West underwater and collapsed the lighthouse tower. Fourteen people
who were hiding out in the tower died that night, but Barbara survived. Soon a new tower was completed, and Barbara worked there until she was asked to resign in 1864, due to her vocal anti-Union sentiments. The feisty 82-year-old refused to comply and so was officially fired after 38 years of service. She passed away a few years later, but here daughter and granddaughter continued the family business both in Key West and at other lighthouses in the Keys. The Key West Lighthouse was automated in 1915 and deactivated in 1969. It is now a museum, where visitors can climb the 88 steps to the top and explore the lighthouse keepers quarters.

Sand Key Lighthouse

Atop a shallow reef and sandbar, the Sand Key Lighthouse is a vital guardian of the main channel leading into Key West Harbor. In 1837, 10 years after the Sand Key Lighthouse started shining, an unlikely keeper took the helm. Capt. Joshua Appleby’s wife had died young, and he did his best to raise his 3-year-old daughter. He worked as a fisherman and wrecker near Key West until he was arrested for intentionally running vessels aground to sell their cargo. He must have been innocent or had influential friends as it didn’t take long before he was out of jail and offered the keeper’s job at Sand Key Lighthouse — switching from sinking ships to protecting them. In October 1846, while his daughter, her husband and their 3-year-old son were visiting, tragedy struck. A hurricane rolled in that night, and by morning the 132-foot lighthouse had disappeared without a trace. Many other hurricanes damaged the lighthouse over the century that it was manned, but none with such a human loss. But between those storms, the sand bar built back up, picnickers visited and flocks of royal terns nested. Egg and feather collecting nearly wiped out the terns, until keepers became wardens, helping to protect nests. Eventually, the last residents left for shore in 1941 when the light was automated. A major fire damaged the lighthouse in 1989, and today only the iron structure remains, along with snorkelers and others enjoying the colorful reef below.

Northwest Passage & Rebecca Shoal Lighthouses

Little remains of these ghost lighthouses and their stories, which have been reclaimed by the sea. The Northwest Passage is sometimes called the “Hemingway Stilts,” as legend has it Ernest Hemingway used the structure as a frequent and favorite fishing hole. It was first lit in 1855 and decommissioned in 1921. In 1971 a fire burned the building, and since the iron pilings have deteriorated and nearly disappeared. Plans for Rebecca Shoal started in 1852, but it ended up as the last lighthouse to be built, partly because of the unusually strong currents and rough seas in the area. It was first lit in 1886 and survived several hurricanes, until it gradually deteriorated in was demolished in 1953. More recently, a skeletal tower was built to hold a light, but was destroyed by Hurricane Charley in 2004. A small beacon still operates at the site.

garden-key-lighthouseGarden Key Lighthouse

Seventy miles west of Key West lie the last cluster of Keys, the Dry Tortugas. Today Garden Key is part of Dry Tourtugas National Park, which is still one of the most isolated of places in our park system. So it’s not terribly surprising that when John and Rebecca Flaherty moved their family there from Baltimore in 1826 to be the first Garden Key Lighthouse keepers, they were a little out of their element. First, the transport cutter didn’t have enough room for all of their luggage. John fell under criticism for repeatedly not cleaning the lens properly. After a year of mosquitos and boredom, Rebecca wrote to the President John Quincy Adam’s wife to insist on a transfer. It worked, and the Flaherty’s were re-stationed at Sand Key. In 1846 construction on Fort Jefferson began around the lighthouse. During the Civil War 2,200 prisoners passed through the walls. In 1873 a hurricane caused irreparable damage and a new metal tower was constructed. The lighthouse was retired in 1921, but a decorative lamp remains. Garden Key Lighthouse is still picturesque and historic enough that it earned a place on a postage stamp in 2009.

loggerhead-key-lighthouseLoggerhead Key Lighthouse

When the Garden Key Lighthouse went up in 1826, it did help keep ships safer, but many criticized that the light was not bright enough. The wreckers were not among those complaining, as groundings on reefs around Dry Tortugas were still plentiful, which kept them busy and profitable. It took three decades, but by 1858 a second, taller and brighter lighthouse went up on Loggerhead Key, three miles from the existing one on Garden Key. The first keeper had a bit of a difficult time, when his two assistants, wife and oldest daughter tried to kill him and he narrowly escaped in a small boat, braving the seas on the 70-mile journey to Key West. Though the Tortugas are isolated, during the Civil War there were as many as two thousand people living at Fort Jefferson, some of whom would pay Loggerhead Key a social visit to kill and eat some of the numerous turtles nesting on the island. In 1931 the lighthouse finally lived up to its bright standard, when incandescent bulbs were installed, powered by a generator. One ship reported seeing it from 53 miles away. Though the light was automated in 1987, today volunteers live on and monitor the property, which is part of Dry Tortugas National Park.

by Karuna Eberl