Digest>Archives> November 2009

Sauna-like Living Conditions At Sombrero Key Kept Tensions High

By Richard Clayton


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In this vintage photograph a lighthouse tender is ...

The earlier keeper’s logbooks for Sombrero Key would begin with entries by Joseph Bethel in March, 1858; however, they seemed to be missing from the storage area in the National Archives in Washington, DC. The first logbook that we found had a heading that read: “Journal of the Light-house Station at Dry Bank, Florida: Sombrero Key.” The first page was dated July 13, 1872.

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Sombrero Key Lighthouse as it appeared in 1954. ...

A coral reef called Sombrero Key is located fifty miles northeast of Key West on US Highway 1, eight miles south of the town of Marathon. The depth of the water varies from 5 to 50 feet, except in May to August when, at low tide, the top of the reef is exposed. Hence the nickname by locals: “Dry Flats.”

The Sombrero Key Lighthouse was first lit on March 17, 1858 by Joseph Bethel, the first keeper. It was the third screw pile lighthouse on the Florida Keys. (The previous two were the Carysfort Reef Light (1852), located off the coast of Key Largo, and the Sand Key Light (1853) , located just south of Key West. All three were of a design by I.W.P. Lewis and constructed by George Meade, a U.S. Army Engineer, later to be remembered in the history books as the Union Commander in the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg.

All three structures had a foundation of iron pilings with disks and the tower was a skeletal pyramid of cast iron. The Sombrero Key Light, 142 feet high, is the tallest skeletal lighthouse of the six currently in the Florida Keys. It, also, holds the record of being the most accident-prone lighthouse in all of Florida.

The cast iron construction of the skeletal lighthouse has survived the worst hurricanes ever to blow into the Keys. It was an ingenious design of construction against the elements. However, during the time of human habitation, air conditioning had not yet been invented. It is hard to imagine the lack of creature comfort for a keeper and his wife, some with small children, living 24 hours a day in a cast iron box, eight miles offshore; particularly on hot, humid sun-drenched afternoons or during tropical storms.

Florida is the only state in the continental United States to have extensive shallow coral reef formations near its coast. The most prolific reef development occurs seaward of the Florida Keys. By the middle of the nineteenth century, maritime traffic, along the Keys had increased dramatically. 160 years ago ships became grounded and damaged and sank up and down the Florida coast; about every ten days on average. In 1856 alone, there were seventy-one wrecks on the Sombrero Key.

The first page in the keeper’s logbook told that Mr. A. A. Seymour was taking charge of the light from Mr. Peter Crocker. The former keeper and his assistant, Charles Crane, left on the same boat that brought Mr. Seymour and his two new assistants; Robert H. Saunders and Hiram S. Seymour. The account was written in long-hand on the first three pages. The new keeper made his entries with a very steady hand and his writing was easily read; considering that the writing instrument would have been a quill pen dipped into a bottle of black ink. His written style was eloquent as this sample will show:

July 13, 1872 “This day the Principal Keeper Mr. Peter Crocker returned from Key West; he having left this station 6th inst. to bring up a new Keeper as he said he had tendered his resignation a month previous. On his arrival he handed me a letter from the Superintendent’s Office apprising Me of my being appointed pro-tem, he also said that boat, now in sight has your two Assistants. On the arrival of said boat, Robert H. Saunders and J. Hiram Seymour both presented their appointments to me and entered on their respective duties. Mr. Crocker and his assistant Charles Crane left; after my having signed the necessary documents prescribed by the rules of Establishment about forty minutes before light up time. I with the two assistants went up to the lantern room to instruct them in the usual routine of their duties.”

(His flowery style of expression went on for three pages and, in the interest of brevity; I think the readers would prefer my paraphrasing the account) “All went well until 10:20 p.m. when the light went out. Mr. Seymour said he took off the smoked tube and lighted and adjusted a clean tube, but as soon as he attempted to put a full flame on it she went out as before.

“My God, I exclaimed, what am I to do? There has been a trick played on me with this lamp for she never did this before. I can’t dismount and mount a service lamp tonight with you raw recruits, that is certain; so, I put her out, put on a clean tube and coaxed her to stay lit all night.”

Pages 4 and 5 had been torn out of the logbook. The next entry, dated July 15th, began on page 6. (Why? Another mystery for researchers to ponder)

The Keeper told how he proceeded to examine the number one lamp:

“I discovered one of her plungers was bottom up, one side upward and the covering cap turned the fore part behind. Neither would she send forth a steady stream of oil until I took her to pieces and replaced her plungers and her crown piece to correspond with the distinguishing marks placed thereon by the lampist. Afterward she worked admirably. On 21, I took Assistant Saunders into “Hog Key” settlement for him to get passage to Key West to bring up his family and was told by some of the settlers how Messrs Crocker and Crane watched the Light that night the 13 instant and described how she was acting with me, which when I was told by the people of Hog Key, fully convinced me that the whole affair was a deep laid scheme and that Crane had abstracted the pin in his morning watch, knowing he would be from the building before she would be lighted again, as we saw the boat that was to bring up Mr. Crocker the night before.”

A.A.Seymour, Keeper Pro-tem

It would seem that something happened prior to the appointment of Mr. Seymour that caused Crocker and Crane to not only resign, but to sabotage the light. Then they sat among the settlers, that first night off-duty, enjoying the success of their dirty trick.

An entry, made three months later, is a letter dated October 14, 1873 to Charles M. Hamilton, the Light District Supt. that relates to the disappearance of 1st Asst. Cox and the Keeper’s apparent harsh conduct toward him. Somewhere in there, A.A. Seymour had left the station and Hiram Seymour was appointed as the new keeper.

November 4, 1873, the steamer brought Jeremiah Buckley as Keeper and Josiah Butts as the Assistant. Fred DeBourcy was already there as an assistant, as all of the previous keepers had been removed.

On December 5th, Mr. A.A. Seymour arrived at the station to summon Mr. Butts to appear at the U.S. Court before Judge Lock. They left the next morning for Key West. On December 26th, Mr. Josiah Butts returned from Key West; discharged from the Court and resumed duty. The new keeper, Jeremiah Buckley noted this information without giving any explanation as to what it was all about.

All was well at the station during the winter months. However, when the summer sun turned up the heat and humidity in this cast iron lighthouse, accidents happened and tempers flared.

July 29, 1874: “Mr. DeBourcy on going up to Keep the first watch in the light drew the oil to take up with him and did not turn the Oil off properly; it dropped from the faucet on to the dripping bucket. When that got full it ran over the floor. When he come down at 10 o’clock to call his relief, he saw it and called me and told me the butt was leaking. When I examined it I found it was all his own carelessness in not shutting it off properly. I don’t think there could be more than a gallon or two at the most wasted. He appeared to be very unconcerned about it and speaks of leaving the end of the quarter.”

August 4, 1874: “The assistant Josiah Butts went with the Keeper on board the schooner, Therissa of Fieldborough, from Havana loaded with sugar and bound for New Orleans to buy some sugar from the Captain and while on board he got several drinks of gin so that he could hardly keep his watch in the Light. He growled with me and insulted my wife.”

(Note: When one looks at a picture of the Sombrero Key Lighthouse, it seems incredible that three men coexisted in those cast iron quarters of that station with no running water and inadequate ventilation. Summers were brutal.)

April 24, 1875: “At half past 3 a.m., I seen the light was very dim. I went up to see what the matter was and I found Mr. Butts stretched out in the chair in the watch room and not attending to the Light. He was nodding and got mad when I spoke to him about it and dared me to report it.”

September 4, ‘75: Paraphrasing again, this entry says that Butts went into Key West and got drunk and came back to the station with two stone jugs of whiskey. He andthe keeper had words and the assistant quit. Dexter took him ashore to Key West and came back with a new assistant, Thomas Cassidy.

Six weeks later, Cassidy went to Key West and on his return trip smashed up their boat. One time before, he had gone in for provisions and capsized on the return trip losing most everything.

January 24, ‘76: Cassidy left the station for good after kicking up a row with Buckley because he would not let him go to Key West with the engineers, instead of doing his chores.

February 10, ‘76: C.W. Ridlen replaced Cassidy and on the 19th, Weatherford, who replaced Dexter, went to get his family and furniture. Thus the reporting of the arrival of assistant keepers, replacing others continued ad infinitum as each one seemed to have gotten into a row with the Keeper.

July 16, ‘76: Buckley reported that he took his wife and child into Key West to a doctor’s office. His little girl had a bad fall at the Light and cut her face and head severely. It was not noted how the accident occurred.

February 28, ‘81: Thomas J. Pinder, now as Keeper, came from Key West

to replace Jeremiah Buckley.

Key West has to be one of the sunniest and warmest places in the country year round. The winter climate maintains between 75 to 80 degrees and in summer 85 to 90 with warmer days mixed in.

The Sombrero Key Lighthouse, originally called the Dry Flat Light, was a manned station beginning in 1858 until it was automated in 1960; one hundred two years!

The reader should note that this story chronicles the lives of the keepers and the assistants from 1872 through 1876; a period of five years or only a mere five percent of the total occupancy of this screw pile, cast iron “lighthouse sauna.” All in all, it was not exactly a vacation paradise. Fortunately, the lighthouse was never a family station, although the families of the keepers were known to have made frequent and even overnight visits. However, the station’s log books only provide a record of the men not getting along with other men, something that may likely have been caused by the sauna-like living conditions.

This story appeared in the November 2009 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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