Protecting Mariners Since 1820
“If I’m really boring, you can leave and sell your seat to one of the 30 people who were turned away from this presentation,” quipped Dr. Kevin McCarthy at the start of an Estero Island Historic Society public presentation that was anything but boring. A capacity audience of more than 80 listened with rapt attention as Dr. McCarthy shared information, anecdotes and images featuring Florida’s 30 lighthouses, and one lightship, on Monday evening, January 14 at the Fort Myers Beach Public Library.
Kevin McCarthy, an Emeritus Professor with over 3 decades of teaching at the University of Florida, has published 67 books, 40 of them about Florida. One of this prolific author’s fascinations is with lighthouses.
In the Introduction to his beautifully illustrated book, Lighthouses of Florida, Dr. McCarthy writes: “To protect ships from the many hazards along the Florida coast and to provide mariners a bearing, the federal government began erecting lighthouses in the 1820s, giving each structure a distinctive color for daytime reckoning and a unique light sequence for nighttime identification.”
Florida’s 30 lighthouses were managed first by the U.S. Treasury Department starting in 1789, then by the Lighthouse Board in Washington, DC in 1852, and since 1939 by the United States Coast Guard, which inspects and maintains each one at least annually.
All lighthouses in the U.S. are now automated and solar powered. The profession of lighthouse keeper has vanished into the sands of time. Several communities have raised funds to retain defunct lighthouse properties for their beauty and historic importance.
Lighthouse Types and Lore
On the east coast of Florida, said Dr. McCarthy, lighthouses are spaced from 30 to 45 miles apart, so that as a particular structure or light beam disappears from the view of a traveling ship, the next becomes visible. Along the west coast of the state, the shallow Continental Shelf means large ships tend not to travel close to shore. Heading south from Sanibel, the next lighthouse does not appear until Key West.
Several types of lighthouse are found in Florida, each adapted to its environment and the needs of mariners. “If the light is too high, mist and fog hide it, making it useless to sailors,” notes Dr. McCarthy’s book. “If the light is too low, sand dunes or trees block its range.”
Traditional, tall lighthouses situated on land
The black-and-white striped St. Augustine and Cape Canaveral lighthouses are examples of this type, as was the bright-red Ponce de Leon Inlet structure located 1.5 miles from the ocean.
“Once a year a ship would bring in all of the supplies that the keeper needed, including 500 one-gallon cans of kerosene,” writes Kevin McCarthy in Lighthouses of Florida. “During the 1920s Prohibition period, the [Ponce de Leon Inlet] light even enabled rumrunners from the Bahamas to sail into various safe havens, while federal revenue agents waited along the beach to try to catch them.”
Among tall, land-based lighthouses, the Dry Tortugas structure on Loggerhead Key is the most remote, and is said to be haunted by a ghost.
Traditional, short lighthouses on land
Some of these stand at Egmont Key, Cape St. George, Amelia Island and St. John’s River at Mayport. The 64-foot Amelia Island lighthouse is located far inland on the peak of a hill overlooking the St. Mary’s River. Its hillside location is more stable than the barrier island or shoreside bases of many lighthouses.
Key West’s short lighthouse is one of the few within U.S. city limits, located near Ernest Hemingway’s house.
Key West, said Dr. McCarthy, once had the highest per-capita income in the United States thanks to the lucrative profession of salvaging or wrecking. Laws allowed salvagers to seize all goods aboard and the wrecked ship itself once they had helped rescue any passengers and crew. Some wreckers placed false lights to lure ships onto reefs and were very displeased with the government-built lighthouses that ate into their trade.
Screwpile lighthouses in water
Screwpile lighthouses are affixed to coral or rock reefs rather than land. These spidery, skeletal metal structures look flimsy compared to a solid cylindrical tower, but they let waves wash through their superstructure and can last for 100 years.
Six to eight of these dot the Florida Keys, including Sand Key (an islet that regularly appears and vanishes), Carysfort Reef and Fowey Rocks lighthouses.
The keepers of these lighthouses had to row from shore, climb onto the structure and carry kegs of kerosene up to the lamp. They stayed alone and maintained the light for a specified period while their families lived ashore.
Screwpile lighthouses on land
The Gasparilla Island Rear Range Light and the Anclote Key and Hillsboro Inlet lighthouses are of this type. The Hillsboro inlet on Pompano Beach marks an area of tricky currents and the northern end of the treacherous, underwater Florida Reef.
South Florida’s famous barefoot mailmen carried mail from the Palm Beaches to Miami in the late 1800s. Along with a mail sack they carried their shoes to avoid ruining them in the sand. They trudged three days out with the mail, rested one day, and walked three days back.
One such mailman, James Hamilton, used a skiff to traverse the 200-foot wide Hillsboro Inlet. On October 11, 1887, someone borrowed his skiff and left it on the far side of the inlet, so Hamilton left his clothes and sack on the beach and dove into the water to swim to his boat. He was never seen again.
The Sanibel Island lighthouse exemplifies the slow pace of government bureaucracy. In 1833 a small group of settlers requested a lighthouse. The government finally surveyed Point Ybel on the island’s eastern tip in 1877 and deemed it a promising site, due to considerable ship traffic to and from the nearby mainland cattle-shipping port of Punta Rassa. The Sanibel lighthouse finally stood proud in August 1884 – more than 50 years after it was first requested.
Houses that serve as lighthouses
The Port Boca Grande lighthouse, a one-story harbor beacon on the southern tip of Gasparilla Island, marks Boca Grande Pass on Charlotte Harbor.
Atop a 52-foot hill on tiny Seahorse Key near the Cedar Keys is a defunct house-type lighthouse. Now a wildlife refuge, Seahorse Key boasts legends of pirate treasure, murder and ghosts.
These navigation aids were common in New England and off New York for many years. Florida’s only example, the St. John’s lightship, was anchored 7 miles seaward of the St. John’s River near Jacksonville from 1929 until its decommissioning in 1954. From a peak of 53 such ships in U.S. waters in 1917, none remained in service by 1985.
Lighthouse Keeping Dangers
Lighthouse keeping was fraught with challenges. It was isolated and lonely. If illness struck, or disputes with wreckers or native people occurred, help might be far away. Erosion caused structures to become unstable. Death in storms, or in attacks, was not uncommon. Lighthouse lore includes suspected murders among lighthouse keepers and assistants that were explained away as accidents.
In wartime, lights were sometimes kept off to prevent marauders from approaching. During the Civil War, east coast Florida lighthouses went dark, baffling legitimate mariners while savvy local blockade runners slipped ashore.
In July 1836, during the Second Seminole War, Seminoles besieged the Cape Florida lighthouse on the southeastern tip of Key Biscayne after slaughtering the temporary keeper’s family. Assistant keeper John Thompson and helper Henry fled up the 65-foot tower under attack, cutting away the wooden stairs as they climbed to the 2-foot wide platform near the top.
Henry was wounded and soon died. Thompson, shot in both feet, threw a lit keg of gunpowder down the lighthouse shaft, expecting to die in taking out his attackers. The keg exploded but did not destroy the tower, and the explosion was loud enough so that, 12 miles out at sea, U.S. sailors heard it. They rescued Thompson and retrieved Henry’s body by firing a length of twine up the tower from a musket, followed by a rope. Two sailors climbed the rope and brought the two men to the ground. Thompson later recovered.
Concluded Dr. McCarthy, lighthouses offer a sense of history and romance, feature in literature and provide enduring beauty – long after their useful function ends. A lighthouse or its beam may be the last place a mariner sees when setting off, and the first sight of welcome back to shore.
This writer recalls sailing across Lake Ontario from Cobourg, Ontario to Oswego, New York, welcomed by the Oswego Lighthouse from miles offshore. In the harbor a mural showed a beautiful image of the lighthouse and the following text:
Trim your feeble lamp, my brother
Some poor sailor, tempest tossed
Trying now to reach the harbor
In the darkness may be lost.
By Janet Sailian
Join the Estero island Historic Society for its next public presentation, at a special time. On Friday, January 25 at 10:30 a.m. in the Community Room (3rd floor) of the FMB Public Library, Gary Mormino will explore The Ten Foods That Define Florida. Gary is a frequent contributor to the Tampa Bay Times and is the author of Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida. He invites all who attend to bring their choice of our region’s most iconic food, and perhaps even a recipe to share.
This program is sponsored by the Florida Humanities Council with funds from the Florida Dept of State, Division of Cultural Affairs and the Florida Council on Arts & Culture.