On Key West, the southernmost point of the continental United States, stands the nation's 15th oldest surviving lighthouse and Florida's only lighthouse that stayed lit throughout the Civil War averting capture by the Confederacy, avoided neglect during the Great Depression, and experienced a transformative reincarnation throughout its entire history.
The Key West Lighthouse was first built in 1825 on Whitehead Point to serve as a beacon, warning ships away from the treacherous reefs just offshore. The original structure was a whitewashed wooden tower measuring 46 feet tall from the foundation to the base of its black iron lantern fueled by 15 whale-oil lamps containing 15-inch diameter reflectors. When factoring in lantern height and the dune on which it stood, the lighthouse was 67 feet above sea level, making it the tallest structure on the island.
After lighthouse keeper Mr. Michael Mabrity's untimely death, his wife Barbara took over and became the longest serving and most colorful keeper of the Key West Lighthouse. She weathered hurricanes in 1835, 1841, 1842, and, miraculously, in an 1846 hurricane, was the sole survivor after a huge wave washed away the tower where she and her six children took refuge leaving a white sand beach in its place. Despite her grief, Mrs. Mabrity continued to serve as keeper.
Due to the large amount of commerce in Key West Harbor, a replacement lighthouse needed to be rebuilt quickly on higher ground. In March 1847, Congress appropriated $12,000 for the new structure. To ensure that it wouldn't succumb to another hurricane, a circular hole several feet deep and 25 feet wide in diameter was chiseled out of the solid coral bedrock to form the foundation. This hole was just a couple inches wider than the base diameter of the brick tower and provided a foundation that couldn't be undermined even if the entire island were to be flooded.
Three porthole windows pierced the brick walls, permitting light to enter and illuminate the tightly twisting, narrow, black wrought-iron staircase. On January 15, 1848, both the tower and the Keeper's Quarters were completed in only 48 days and under budget at $7,247. The Keeper's Quarters contained a parlor, dining room, and two bedrooms.
To keep the dwelling cooler in the tropical weather, and to protect it from fire, the kitchen was constructed separately from the main house. The lighthouse was now about 60 feet tall from its base on the ground up to the lantern's ventilator ball.
The Civil War greatly affected Key West residents including the lighthouse keeper. There was strong support for secession, and most people supported the Confederacy. When the war began, the Confederacy ordered all the lighthouses along the coasts of Confederate states to be darkened so as not to aid the navigation of the Federal blockading fleet. By August 1861, all of the lighthouses along the East Coast of Florida were dark except for the Key West Lighthouse.
This was due to the fact that Captain James Brannan, Commander of the United States First Artillary in Key West, secured Fort Zachary Taylor for the Union under Federal control. Since Key West was the only Florida port not controlled by the Confederacy, the U.S. Navy stationed guards to protect the lighthouse. Despite Union possession, Confederate flags flew from many buildings, and anti-Union sentiments were openly expressed in the streets. Many people who did not swear allegiance to the U.S. were arrested by Union troops and confined at the Fort without trial or judicial hearing. Meanwhile at the Key West Lighthouse, eighty-year-old Barbara Mabrity, although secretly pro-Southern from her upbringing as a member of one of the oldest families in St. Augustine, knew that she owed her livelihood and position to the Federal government. She held her tongue and took the oath of allegiance to keep her job.
During 1863 and early 1864, Unionists
John P. Ham and William Saunders were appointed at various times to assist the elderly Mrs. Mabrity in tending to lighthouse duties. Apparently one of the men overheard Mrs. Mabrity issue a remark that was disloyal to the Union, and accusations were leveled against her. In the spring of 1864, she was urged to retire at 82 years old. She refused and was fired after 38 years of service.
After the lighthouse received further damage in an 1866 hurricane, its top was replaced in order to add an additional three feet in height. By 1885, the original Keepers Quarters was suffering major deterioration due to the extreme climate and insect infestations. This poor condition also explained the extremely high turnover of keepers during this period. A new dwelling was completed at the cost of $4,975 in 1887 on the original site, but this time it faced Whitehead St. instead of the lighthouse. It was a solid frame structure mounted on brick piers built with the finest seasoned wood featuring white clapboard siding, green shutters, and a cypress shake roof. A seven-foot wide veranda surrounded the house on the north, east, and south sides. The interior was designed so that the keepers and their families shared a common parlor, dining room with a double central fireplace, pantry, and kitchen. However, each family now had a private bedroom with a separate door to the outside. As a finishing touch, a new white picket fence enclosed the entire grounds, defining the property boundaries because the City of Key West was rapidly expanding around them.
On June 17, 1889, William A. Bethel, grandchild of the illustrious Barbara Mabrity was appointed keeper with his wife Mary Eliza as assistant keeper. Together, William and his wife served at the lighthouse until it was automated in 1915.
In 1891, the lamp in the tower was converted from lard oil to kerosene, and a new oil storage building, away from the tower, was constructed to store this more flammable fuel. The catastrophic Key West fire of 1886 illustrated the folly of having shake roofs on buildings. Consequently, sometime after 1892, a slate roof was installed on the keepers' dwelling. During the same year, mariners began complaining that the tower was not tall enough. The local lighthouse inspector wrote: “The light is not high enough to make it as conspicuous as it should be. Tall trees obstruct the view of the light from the northwest. The tower is but 60 feet high. It would be an immense improvement to build the tower up about 20 feet.” In response, a new tower extension was completed on February 5, 1895 at the cost of about $4,500, and took a month to complete.
Key West, nicknamed Stella Maris (Star of the Sea), was in its golden age toward the end of the nineteenth century. With a population of more than 18,000 in 1890, the city had easily become the largest and wealthiest city in Florida. Wrecking and salvaging built Key West's early wealth. It was not uncommon for the average home to boast Belgian table linen, the finest English bone china, and silver tableware featuring crests and patterns representing European royalty.
Later, sailing ships and steamers plying legitimate trade offloaded spices, furniture, fabrics, and other luxuries from around the world. Six hundred fourteen foreign and domestic ships docked in one year, making it the largest port of entry in the Gulf Coast. Key West also boasted five daily newspapers and eight miles of streetcar tracks. Beginning with the visit of John James Audubon in 1832, the city began attracting wealthy and notable people from around the world, including Ulysses S. Grant, President Grover Cleveland, Winslow Homer, Jack London, Clara Barton, and Ernest Hemingway. Even though no records exist indicating that any of these notables visited or climbed the lighthouse, they certainly saw it during their stays on the island, and probably many of them did visit. In fact, Ernest Hemingway lived right under the lighthouse's shadow across the street.
Throughout the late 1890's the battleship U.S.S. Maine frequently followed the lighthouse beacon into Key West harbor. After the ship mysteriously exploded off the coast of Cuba in 1898, propelling the U.S. into the Spanish-American War with the battle cry “Remember the Maine,” the Navy dredged a deeper channel through the entrance of Key West harbor to accommodate the larger warships entering the harbor. Later, on July 24, 1908, the lighthouse was one of the first in Florida to install a 34-millimeter incandescent oil vapor (I.O.V.) lamp, substantially improving the tower's illuminating apparatus.
The I.O.V. lamp was a more complex system than the kerosene wick lamp because it used pumps, a pressurized air tank, and various valves all interconnected with air and fuel lines. However, it was more efficient and used about half the kerosene that the older lamps required. Still, even with these technological advances in a rapidly changing world, routine tasks and danger were still a very real presence in the keepers' lives. The lantern curtains still had to be hung by hand daily onto the rings all around the inside of the lantern early in the morning to protect the lens from the hot sun. They then had to be taken down at sunset each evening before the lamp was lit.
Jennie Bethel, daughter of keepers William and Mary Bethel recalled that during a hurricane in 1909: “The wind arose, and it was so strong that it threatened the light. My mother headed for those steep, winding stairs. She thought that she could save the light. I pleaded with her not to go, and finally had to drag her back with force when she started up the steps. Just then, up above us, we heard the glass break, and the pieces came crashing down into the tower. That was the first time the light ever failed.”
In 1912, Henry Flagler completed his Overseas Railway across the Florida Keys to Key West. One of the first visitors to arrive via this route was President William Howard Taft. His visit promoted how easy it now was for the average citizen to take a train from New York to Key West. This opened the area to the outside world and more than a hundred people a
day visited the lighthouse and climbed the tower to experience the breathtaking view.
A new acetylene gas system was installed in late 1914 because the white light had to be changed from fixed to flashing in order to distinguish it from the growing number of similarly fixed lights in the newer, taller buildings of the city. To achieve this, either the third-order, fixed Fresnel lens needed to be replaced with a revolving lens or a lamp had to flash inside the old lens. Installing a revolving lens would be difficult and expensive, and installing a flashing light would be a challenge as well, because there were few lighting systems at that time that could create this effect. Kerosene lamps were never designed to flash and electricity was still considered too unreliable for this life-saving usage. The only system that could realistically provide a flashing light and use the original 1858 Fresnel lens without alteration was acetylene gas. Another advantage of the acetylene system was that an automatic sun-activated valve could be installed that turned the light on at dusk and off at daybreak. This new lighting also eliminated the need for constant surveillance and terminated the full time keeper positions leaving the keeper's quarters vacant until 1917 when Capt. William Demeritt moved in with his family.
The deciding factor of Capt. Demeritt's residency was his surveillance of the oil house where kerosene was stored during the war. He and his family lived there for 22 years and made several major improvements to the quarters and grounds. These improvements included installing a new sanitary plumbing system, adding a new bathroom to the keeper's quarters, and extending the pantry walls on the north side of the house onto the veranda. After World War I, in addition to further structural improvements, Demeritt also planted many exotic tropical trees and plants on the grounds, which included an altissima tree. This tree grew to rival the lighthouse itself as a popular tourist attraction with local guidebooks recommending that people visit the light station just to see this tree. Remarkably, all these improvements continued even during a time when a collapsed Key West economy plunged the city into $5 million of debt and 12,000 (80%) of its citizens onto the welfare rolls.
In April of 1933, Thomas Edison's advice offered by him 16 years earlier was followed and the Key West Lighthouse was electrified. The acetylene equipment was removed except for the brass tubes, still visible today, and an electric lamp of 250 watts was installed inside the old 1858 third-order Fresnel lens. This change marked the fifth lighting transition for the old lens from lard oil, to kerosene, to incandescent oil vapor, to acetylene, and now electricity.
The part time attendants now had to spend even less time at the station. By 1934, Key West had entered the age of air travel, and aviators began using the lighthouse tower as a major landmark during their descent into the local airfield. The tall lighthouse was hard for aviators to distinguish from the many other structures in the city painted white to reflect the harsh summer sun. In response, the tower was painted buff and the lantern green.
In May 1942 during World War II, the federal government issued “dimout” regulations stipulating that all lights along the shore would be blacked out or dimmed. This was to save allied war ships from Nazi attack by eliminating the silhouette effect produced by the bright lights of the cities and lighthouses. In response, the Key West Lighthouse replaced its 250 with 50 watt bulb for the duration of the war. John Fleming, a long serving lighthouse attendant from 1925 through 1954, found that after WWII, over 400 tourists daily visited the lighthouse. The Coast Guard, now in control of the property, determined that this heavy visitation unduly increased liability risk and presented too much of
a workload for Fleming and his helper. On January 26, 1948, the station was closed to visitors.
By 1952, a photoelectric cell automatically turned the light on at night and off at daybreak, but an attendant still had to climb the tower twice a day to take down or put up the protective curtains. In May 1966, the Coast Guard decided to vacate the keeper's quarters and lease it to Monroe County for use as a museum. By this time, the lamp in the tower had been upgraded to 500 watts, but as Key West continued to grow and more modern navigational aids were developed, the lighthouse was becoming much less significant as an aid to navigation. The Coast Guard was finding it harder to justify maintenance costs for a navigational aid that was no longer needed. On December 1, 1969,
83-year-old Jennie Bethel, daughter of former keepers William and Mary Bethel was given the somber task of officially turning off the light for the last time. As she put her hand on the large electric switch,
she reportedly trembled a little before pulling it down to permanently extinguish the light after more than 121 years of service.
In 1989, the Key West Art and Historical Society saved the light station and keeper's quarters from abandonment and preserved it as an authentic time capsule displaying its heritage and role in Key West's history.
In 1998, the lighthouse was nominated for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places as a National Historic Landmark. Last year, over 75,000 visitors climbed the 88 spiral iron steps to the observation deck for panoramic views of Key West in spite of the four mandatory hurricane evacuations in the summer. Curator Norman Aberle is very excited about the future. “The Key West Art and Historical Society is currently embarked on $115,000 exhibit upgrade project that will tell the lighthouse story in a more informative and modern way.” A video portion budgeted at $6,000 will feature aerial footage illustrating Key West landmarks and how they relate to the lighthouse grounds.
This story appeared in the
August 2006 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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