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Description: Looking at the peaceful sunbathers and picnickers relaxing on the white sands surrounding the Cape Florida Lighthouse, one would have a hard time picturing this as the site of violence, treachery, and bloodshed galore. However, the 18th century found the beaches of Key Biscayne the happy hunting grounds of marauding pirates, wreckers, and bands of Indians. One especially notorious pirate, Black Caesar, terrorized this coast until he was caught and hanged in 1718. Over these precarious shores the rays from the 17 lanterns in the Cape Florida Lighthouse first shone on Dec. 17, 1825, but not without difficulties that foreshadowed the drama to come.
Three years earlier, in May of 1822, Congress had appropriated $8000 to build a Cape Florida lighthouse, adding $16,000 more in the spring of 1824. That July the contract for the Cape Florida Light and two other lighthouses in Key West and Dry Tortugas was awarded to Samuel B. Lincoln of Boston. With his plans and materials he set sail in August, but neither he nor any of his crew was ever seen again. It is assumed his ship sank, leaving no survivors.
A man named Noah Humphreys took over the project, and by the end of 1825 the 65-foot brick tower with wood stairs was completed. However, the lighthouse was not immune to the desperate conflicts and battles that had formed the area.
On July 23, 1836, a band of Seminole Indians attacked the tower. The lighthouse keeper, John Dubose, was in Key West visiting his family, who, along with others, had removed there earlier in the year when hostilities with the Indians became particularly threatening. Only the assistant keep Thompson and his Negro handyman (probably his slave) were there when the Seminole arrived in a wave of bullets. Thompson and his handyman barricaded themselves inside the tower and then retreated to the top after the Indians set fire to the door which spread to a 225-gallon tank of oil. Prudently, they brought with them muskets and a keg of powder, but their weapons did little to shield them from the intense heat of the burning stairs and the flying glass from the rupturing windows and lanterns.
As the flames increased, they were forced outside onto the two-foot-wide iron balcony. The Negro handyman was killed in the fight and Thompson, already shot in the foot from the initial onslaught, was wounded again. In this desperate situation, his clothes on fire, Thompson threw the keg of powder down into the flames, hoping to end his misery. The explosion, however, did not kill him, but it did destroy what was left of the burning staircase, which lessened the waves of heat rolling over the semiconscious Thompson, who had collapsed on the balcony.
This blast did more than remove the burning staircase; assuming Thompson was dead, the Indians turned their attention to setting fire to the keeper’s house and then left, while a Navy vessel, hearing the explosion, came to shore to investigate. By the next day the crew had discovered the burned lighthouse and the wounded assistant keeper, stranded high above the ground. The resourceful captain managed to rescue Thompson by firing twine from his musket, which Thompson caught and used to pull a heavier rope up to the tower. Using the rope as a kind of pulley, two seamen were able to hoist themselves to the tower and help Thompson descend.
Cape Florida Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy State Archives of Florida
The threat of further Indian attacks prevented reconstruction for more than ten years. Although in 1837 Congress appropriated $10,000 to rebuild Cape Florida Light, when the workmen and supervisor arrived at Cape Florida, they found “that hostile Indians were in entire possession of the adjacent country” and a navy captain had recently been murdered. As a result, the lighthouse remained out of service until 1847, when it was rebuilt—this time with iron stairs—with an additional $13,000 appropriated by Congress.
However, the excitement was far from over. In 1851, Lieutenant George G. Meade was sent to investigate lighthouses along Florida’s reefs and give recommendations for improvements. Later, Lt. Meade would rise to fame as General Meade, commander of the victorious Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, and Cape Florida Light would rise to 95 feet with a new second-order Fresnel lens as a result of Meade’s design. But on January 19, 1861, Florida seceded from the Union, and one night in August of that year, the lamps and burners were removed from the lighthouse and the center prism of the lens was smashed so it could not be used to help the Union sailors controlling the surrounding waters.
After the Civil War, Cape Florida Light was repaired, but again, its fate was uncertain. In 1878 it was extinguished, this time because the offshore Fowey Rocks Light had replaced it. By the 1920s the coastline had eroded so much that the lighthouse, originally 100 feet from shore, now stood only ten feet from the water. Tropical storms had also destroyed the keeper’s house and cookhouse. Rejected twice as a historic landmark by the Federal Government, the lighthouse was finally purchased, along with the tip of Key Biscayne, by the State Cabinet in 1966. In January of 1967, the park, which would be named Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park in honor of the news editor who had spearheaded the campaign to save the lighthouse, was opened.
One hundred years after Cape Florida Light had been extinguished, it was re-lit on July 4, 1978. The rest of the station was also brought back to life, as the keeper’s dwelling , outhouse, cookhouse, and cistern were all rebuilt. It appeared to be a happy ending for the beleaguered lighthouse, but in August of 1992, Hurricane Andrew caused major damage to the tower. Once again the tower was extinguished and needed extensive repairs; the state again came to the rescue, restoring it in time for Miami’s Centennial Celebration in 1996.
Just to the side of the booth where you pay your entrance fee to Bill Baggs State Park, stands a ventilator that probably once sat atop the lighthouse. After you park and walk to the entrance gate to the light station, you will see an old lantern room, probably designed by George Meade, that used to adorn the tower. Inside the lighthouse property, you will find a replica of the keeper’s cottage burned by the Seminole, which contains displays depicting early life on the island. With the only visitors to the lighthouse being tourists and state employees, perhaps Cape Florida Light faces a more placid future.
Lighthouses, Arthur Smith, 1971.
Lighthouses of the Florida Keys, Love Dean, 1998.
Location: Located on the southern tip of Key Biscayne at 1200 Crandon Boulevard, Key Biscayne, FL.
Travel Instructions: From the southern end of Interstate 95 in Miami, take Exit 1 and go south on the Rickenbacker Causeway to Key Biscayne. Rickenbacker Causeway will become Crandon Boulevard, which you can follow to Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park at the southern end of Key Biscayne, where the Cape Florida Lighthouse is located.
The lighthouse is open for tours at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., Thursday through Monday. Call (305) 361-5811 for more details.
We took a tour of the lighthouse, and then also flew over the lighthouse with Dean International Inc. The flights depart from Tamiami Airport southwest of Miami.
The lighthouse is owned by the State of Florida. Grounds/tower/dwelling open during tours.
Find the closest hotels to Cape Florida Lighthouse
Notes from a friend:
The spiral staircase inside the lighthouse is quite unique. Unlike the staircases found in most other lighthouses, this one is not attached to the exterior walls for a good portion of the climb. This makes for an interesting trek as the staircase tends to move a little. However, the fresh breeze and beautiful view that await you at the tower’s top are well worth any queasy feelings you might experience during the ascent.