I have been studying Florida lighthouse history for 35 years now, and one of the things that always intrigued me was the origin of the names that later became lighthouse stations. Some are quite obvious, (i.e. St. Augustine Lighthouse), while a few have been extremely difficult to track down (how did Rebecca Shoal and American Shoal get their names?). I’m pleased to tell you that I have found a source for the name Rebecca Shoal Lighthouse.
Rebecca Shoal is a quicksand-like sandy area only 11 feet deep, located 12 miles east of the Dry Tortugas and 43 miles west of Key West (the Dry Tortugas is the nearest land). Several attempts to mark the shoal with an unlighted pile beacon were begun in 1854, but proved unsuccessful when violent storms washed the structure away before it could be completed. The engineer in charge, none other than George G. Meade (who would soon become famous as the Union General commanding the Civil War victory at Gettysburg) stated “In reporting this failure, … I feel it proper to observe … that no light-house structure of any kind has been erected, either in this country or in Europe, at a position more exposed and offering greater obstacles than Rebecca Shoal.”
The shoal was marked by unlighted buoys until 1879 when a 75-foot tall unlighted screw-pile structure was completed. On November 1, 1886, the unlighted beacon was replaced by a wooden lighthouse on a screw-pile foundation. The lighthouse was manned until 1925 when the keepers were removed and the lighthouse automated. The wooden keeper’s house was removed in 1955, but the lantern room was salvaged and can now be seen atop a rental home in Key Largo. In 1985, the iron screw pile foundation was replaced by a modern pile structure with a skeleton tower on top.
So how did Rebecca Shoal get its name? I had long suspected a shipwreck, but found no clues until I came across an entry in a sailing guide called the Columbian Navigator, which was published in 1839. In a section on the channel east of the Tortugas, there was this footnote: “It seems that on this reef the ship Rebecca, of New York, lost part of her cargo in 1820. — According to the Rebecca’s Journal the reef lay 11 miles from the Tortugas; so that, in passing, it is advisable to keep the Tortugas in sight from the deck, and at the distance of two or three leagues.”
Some might say “Eureka!” but for me, one 19-year old account wasn’t enough proof. I wanted to find additional references to the ship Rebecca in 1820.
Fortunately, I subscribe to a website that provides searches in historical newspapers. There I found that there was more than one ship with the name Rebecca active in the 1820s. With a little more digging, I found just what I was looking for … several newspaper reports about the grounding of the Rebecca:
“New York, Feb 18. We have been favored with the perusal of a letter, dated New Orleans, Jan. 19, stating that the ship Rebecca, (Captain) Miner, on her passage from New York to New Orleans, got aground between the Tortugas and the Florida shore, about a league from the N.W. side of the rocks — that she was three days aground — that about one-half of her cargo was thrown over — that two days were taken up in getting her into deep water — and that the vessel would have been lost but for the successful exertions of the passengers. [The Rebecca arrived at New Orleans on the 22d of Jan.]”
A second account confirms the grounding:
“A letter from our New-Orleans correspondent, of the 22d ult. says, ‘The passengers in the ship Rebecca, Captain Minor, from New-York, have just got up to the city, and report, that on her passage to this place she run upon the Tortugas Shoal, and was under the necessity of throwing over about one-half of her cargo, before they could get her off. I have not learnt whether the vessel sustained any damage; she has not yet got up to the city...’”
Damage to the Rebecca was apparently minor, for on May 13, 1820, the Rebecca completed a voyage of 16 days from New Orleans to Philadelphia, carrying sugar, tobacco and cotton, along with 12 cabin and 23 steerage passengers.
The Rebecca continued in operation as a sail packet ship operating between Philadelphia and New Orleans until the fall of 1825, when the ship was put up for sale and her ultimate fate again moved into the shrouded fog of history.
In 1918, Rebecca Shoal Lighthouse was visited for a month by Professor S. C. Ball of the Massachusetts Agricultural College. Ball was investigating the flight capabilities of mosquitoes and flies. His studies found that two species of mosquitoes could fly at least 40 miles on a calm day, and, if helped by wind, they could fly 150 miles. He also reported that the common house fly could also reach Rebecca Shoal Light, but only on a persistent strong wind.
Only a year later, tragedy struck when the wreck of the Spanish steamship SS Valbanera was found 6 miles east of the lighthouse. The wreck was in 40 feet of water, with only the tops of the ship’s masts sticking out of the water. The Valbanera was a 400-foot long steamship built in 1905 that was capable of carrying up to 1,200 passengers. It was last seen afloat off of Havana, Cuba, at night, in the midst of a hurricane ten days before the wreck was found. There were no survivors from the wreck, which took the lives of 488 passengers and crew. Newspaper reports of the time say that most of the lifeboats were found still tied to the deck, and no bodies were seen or recovered despite numerous attempts to find them in the months after the sinking. Recovery efforts were suspended when the wreck sank further into the sand. Ernest Hemingway’s haunting short story “After the Storm” (published in 1932) is loosely based on the wreck of the Valbanera.
In late 2016, I made a day trip on the Dry Tortugas ferry to see the lighthouses at Fort Jefferson and Loggerhead Key. On the way back, the ferry’s Captain obliged my request to pass by Rebecca Shoal Light. I checked back with the Captain frequently as I knew the 66-foot tall tower could be easily missed in the large expanse of ocean. What I didn’t know was the modern tower had been wrecked by a storm months before, and its ruins are now marked by a lighted buoy: Rebecca Shoal Lighted Buoy 4. As you can see in the photo, only the pile foundation remains, and it is leaning. A later check of the 2017 Coast Guard Light List says that the light structure is “Abandoned. Structure is unstable and considered unsafe.”
Named for the sail packet ship Rebecca which grounded there in 1820, Rebecca Shoals continues to prove to be an engineering challenge for lighthouse engineers from the past and present. The lighthouse keepers of the past are long gone, and today only a lonely lighted buoy and the ruins of a pile structure mark this once dangerous shoal.
Editor’s Note: Neil Hurley is a retired Commander in the U.S. Coast Guard, the historian of the Florida Lighthouse Association, and an author of several books on the history of Florida Lighthouses. He is currently working on a two-volume history of the lightships and lighthouse that mark Carysfort Reef in the Florida Keys.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2017 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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