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 overlooked an everchanging port city for over 121 years.
Key West Lighthouse Early Years
First built in 1825 on Whitehead Point, The Key West Lighthouse guided ships away from 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.Barbara Mabrity, the lighthouse’s most colorful keeper, 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. A replacement was quickly built by chiseling a foundation hole several feet deep and 25 feet wide into solid coral bedrock.
Civil War Through The Late 1800s
During the Civil War, the Confederacy ordered all the lighthouses to be darkened along the coasts of Confederate states in order to thwart 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.
By the late 1800s, Key West, nicknamed Stella Maris (Star of the Sea), was in its golden age. 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. Soon, 614 legitimate foreign and domestic ships docked each year, making Key West the largest port of entry in the Gulf Coast. Notable visitors at this time included 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, Ernest Hemingway established residence right under the lighthouse’s shadow across the street.
Lighthouse Into The 20th Century
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 climbing the tower to experience the breathtaking view.
In April of 1933, an 250 watt electric lamp was installed inside the old 1858 third-order Fresnel lens. The acetylene equipment was removed except for the brass tubes, still visible today. 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.
On December 1, 1969, the light was permanently extinguished after more than 121 years of service.
Photo courtesy of Steve Mirsky