Digest>Archives> June 2004

Mystery of the Lighthouse at Key Largo

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For nearly fifty years, this large faux ...

Thanks to the interest in and research by the current owners of the lighthouse, David and Mariana McGraw, and work done by historian Jerry Wilkinson, we can now finally piece together more of the history of this interesting lighthouse.

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No clues were ever found to solve the mystery of ...

Located right on the property of the McGraws on Key Largo in the Florida Keys, this lighthouse has far more significance than a typical faux lighthouse, for it incorporates the only known surviving part from a real lighthouse which is now long-gone.

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An aerial view of Rebecca Shoal Lighthouse, a ...

In 1959, a previous owner of the McGraws’ property was interested in building a lighthouse at the end of his property where a canal enters the Atlantic Ocean. He heard about an original lighthouse lantern, which was being offered for sale by a junk dealer in Ocala, Florida. He sent a crew to Ocala to recover the lantern and bring it down to Key Largo for installation on the top of his new lighthouse. Contactor Ralph Smith, who was in the process of also building the surrounding subdivision at that time, built the concrete base and tower of the lighthouse. Modern research into the provenance of this original lantern has indicated that the lantern came from the Rebecca Shoal Lighthouse.

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The lighthouse on Rebecca Shoal was the last and most difficult to build in the Florida Keys. It was located in the Gulf of Mexico, forty-three miles west of Key West in the very turbulent waters between the Marquesas Keys and the Dry Tortugas. Efforts to construct a day-beacon there began in 1854, when Lt. George Gordon Meade came to inspect the site. He commented that no beacon of any kind had been erected, in the United States or in Europe, in a position that was more exposed or offered greater obstacles. The beacon was nearly completed when, on May 17, 1855, a violent storm washed the entire structure away. Several times, work on a beacon here continued, and each time the structure failed to survive. The shoal was finally marked with buoys rather than a day-beacon.

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They would be truly amazed if that original ...

The Civil War delayed any further work on the beacon, but, finally, in May 1873, one was completed. It was destroyed that October. Bad weather made reconstruction impossible until the Lighthouse Board finally decided that a major structure would be needed to mark this dangerous shoal. In 1879, a seventy-five foot high skeletal day beacon was assembled at Key West, taken apart, and then re-assembled on Rebecca Shoal. However, more than just a day mark was needed here.

In May 1886, the seventy-five foot tower was taken down and work began on the lighthouse. The new lighthouse would be a wooden Chesapeake type, house-style lighthouse on screw-pile iron pilings. During the fall of 1886, the lantern (the same that is currently on the Key Largo faux lighthouse) was installed on the new Rebecca Shoal Lighthouse. The lamp inside the lantern was first lit on November 1, 1886, sending out a light that flashed alternately red and white.

The lighthouse consisted of three floors with the lantern incorporated into the roof of the structure.

The first floor was used to store supplies, which were lifted onto this floor of the lighthouse by a small crane. The three keepers, all men, without their families, lived on the second floor. The third floor was a single room with four dormer windows and served as the service and repair room for the lamp and lens and as the watch room.

This lighthouse survived many severe storms. In 1889, one storm rocked the lighthouse so badly that the lens was damaged. In 1893, the red-and-white flashing lens was changed to a white lens; red sector panels were installed so that a red flash could be seen only when a vessel was approaching a dangerous reef.

Sometimes, tragic things happened at Rebecca Shoal, perhaps because of the extreme remoteness of this lighthouse. In 1902, one of the assistant keepers went out of his mind and either fell or jumped into the water below never to be seen again. The following year, the principal keeper died there.

On August 1, 1925, the Rebecca Shoal Lighthouse was automated by the acetylene gas system, and keepers no longer had to risk their lives there. Deterioration and vandalism took their toll on the structure. In 1953, the house was removed, and the iron lantern was taken down and sold for scrap. Somehow, it survived and eventually found its way to the scrap iron dealer in Ocala where Mr. McGraw’s predecessor found it and brought it home to the Florida Keys to preserve. When David McGraw purchased the property a few years ago, the lighthouse had badly deteriorated and probably would have been demolished. McGraw, however, was fascinated by the old lighthouse ruin and wisely decided to restore it.

Today, the faux lighthouse and its historic lantern are in excellent condition. Inside the lighthouse, McGraw has constructed two guest rooms and a restroom for his friends who might like to stay in a lighthouse while visiting. They would truly be amazed if that original lantern could tell of the adventures it saw during a period of sixty-seven years atop the Rebecca Shoal Lighthouse.

Some mysteries about this faux lighthouse on Key Largo have been cleared up; others remain. While refurbishing the lighthouse, Dave McGraw discovered a number painted on the side of the structure: No. LLNR50335. Thinking it might have been a “Light List” or special Coast Guard number consigned when the lighthouse was designated a “private aid to navigation,” a search was made. However, as McGraw explains, “We never found any information on the old number on the lighthouse. Even the old light lists left no clues; even the number of digits didn’t match anything. Back to square one I guess.”

Although now located at the eastern rather than the western end of the Florida Keys, this lantern is all that remains today of the original Rebecca Shoal Lighthouse. Not even the original pilings remain. The entire foundation structure was replaced in 1985, and today’s Rebecca Shoal Lighthouse is simply an automated beacon mounted directly on the new iron screw-pile foundation.

Lighthouse lovers can be grateful that David and Mariana McGraw had the wisdom and foresight to save this precious relic of our lighthouse heritage.

This story appeared in the June 2004 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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