Digest>Archives> May 1999

New Tender Honors Woman Keeper Barbara Mabrity and Her Amazing Part of U.S. Lighthouse History


Another new Coast Buoy Tender, named after a famous lighthouse keeper has been launched by Marinette Marine Corporation of Marinette, Wisconsin.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Barbara Mabrity (WLM 55() was launched in honor of her service at Florida's Key West Lighthouse where she served as keeper from 1832 until she retired at age 82 in 1864.

Barbara Mabrity originally was assigned to Key West with her husband Michael Mabrity in January of 1826. However, their happy life at the lighthouse came to an end in 1832 when Michael died of Yellow Fever and she took over his position through government appointment.

Born in 1782, she married a sailor named Michael Mabrity, a man who was familiar with the ways of the sea and was characterized as a man of "integrity and diligence."

In those days lighthouse keepers were political appointees. Both Michael and Barbara received excellent recommendations to become the first keepers of the Key West Lighthouse and were officially appointed by President John Quincy Adams.

Officials described the lighthouse as, "Unquestionably one of the best lights in the United States and the keeper well qualified." Michael and Barbara were civic minded people and Michael was soon elected to the City Council. They soon discovered that their home at the lighthouse was too far from town and not large enough for hosting guests for the politics of the day. To remedy the situation, Michael hired someone to tend the light, and moved the family to a larger house in town.

The District Superintendent of Lighthouses soon found out that the Mabrity's were no longer living in the lighthouse and gave them an ultimatum, move back and tend the light or be fired. They moved back to the lighthouse, but convinced the government to give them a pay raise of $100 per year from $400 to $500.

When Michael died in 1832, Barbara was left to tend for herself with six children. Although she was appointed Keeper, the government did not appoint an assistant.

On October 10, 1846, a hurricane blew into Key West that was described as the most destructive, " of any that has ever visited these latitudes," Since the sturdy lighthouse had withstood the previous hurricanes with no appreciable damage, several people came to the lighthouse to take refuge from the storm, including all six of Barbara Mabrity's children. The storm became so fierce that the lighthouse began to crumble and fall. Barbara was able to grab one of her children and escape the lighthouse before it was blown apart, killing the remaining inhabitants including her five other children.

Even though she had suffered the loss of five of her children, she did not retire, but tended the temporary light and the new lighthouse when it was completed.

During the Civil War, Florida seceded from the Union, but Key West remained in Union control because of the presence of union troops at Fort Zachary Taylor. At one time Barbara was accused of being a Confederate sympathizer, but was cleared of those charges and kept the light burning throughout the war years.

In 1843 a group of local citizens signed a petition requesting that the government give her an assistant, however it was not until 1854, when Barbara was 72 years old did the government finally consent to appointing an assistant Keeper.

In 1864, Barbara Mabrity finally decided to retire at the age of 82. She had kept the light for an amazing 38 years. During that time she was an unflinching example of devotion to duty while suffering great personal loss. Three years later she passed away at age 85.

Florida's Key West Lighthouse where Barbara Mabrity served as Keeper for an amazing 38 years. The Key West Lighthouse will be hosting the National Lighthouse Conference this October 12-16. For additional information contact, Key West Art & Historical Society, 3501 South Roosevelt Blvd., Key West, FL 33040.

But wait, there's more . . .

One of Barbara Mabrity's grand-daughters, Mary Armanda Fletcher, married a man named John Carroll. John became keeper of the Key West Lighthouse in 1870. When John died in 1889, Barbara's granddaughter Mary became Keeper of the Key West Lighthouse until her cousin and another one of Barbara's grand-children, William Bethel, became the Keeper. William served in that position until 1908 when he was severally injured in a fall. While William was listed as Keeper until his death in 1910, he was unable to be of any assistance in tending the light. William's wife, Mary Elizabeth, tended the light and became official Keeper from 1910 until 1915 when the Key West Lighthouse was automated,

The Mabrity's, their grand-children, or their grand-children's spouses kept the Key West Lighthouse for 82 of the 89 years it was a manned station.

And now you know why the new Coast Guard Cutter was named after Barbara Mabrity. The vessel will be home-ported in Mobile, Alabama.

This story appeared in the May 1999 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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