Charlotte Harbor Lighthouse once graced the placid waters of Charlotte Harbor bay in Southwest Florida, just to the west of Fort Myers. The lighthouse was manned for only 28 years, and 53 years after it was built, the “house” portion of the structure was torn down. The lighthouse’s isolated location in the center of the wide bay, and its relatively short lifespan have caused this lighthouse to be one of the least well know in Florida.
Ironically, it was a railroad that caused this lighthouse to be built, and another railroad that resulted in its abandonment and later destruction.
Sounding somewhat like salesman, George Barbour described the bay in his 1882 book Florida for Tourists, Invalids and Settlers:
Charlotte Harbor, however, possesses greater natural advantages than any other on the Gulf coast, and has been pronounced by competent authority to be the best harbor between Port Royal and Pensacola. It is a grand sheet of water, about thirty miles in length by ten in width, easily accessible from the Gulf, and studded with hundreds of beautiful tropical islands, of which the most important are Pine, Sanibel , Captiva, Lacosta and Gasparilla. The locality has of late begun to attract much attention, and nearly all the projected railroads of the State have fixed upon Charlotte Harbor as a southern terminus – among them the South Florida Railroad, which as explained in another chapter, has already set out on the route thither. Indeed, the geographical, commercial, and climatic advantages of the place are too apparent to escape notice, and I believe that some locality on that noble harbor is destined to become a great trade and shipping center, and one of the most popular winter resorts in the State.
The railroad selected Punta Gorda, a small town at the northeast corner of the bay, for its southern terminus. From Punta Gorda, a fleet of steamships would connect Florida to southern ports in Cuba and the Caribbean.
The railroad took a few years to build, so it wasn’t until July 24, 1886 that the first train rumbled into Punta Gorda. In October, 1888 Congress passed an appropriation for $35,000 for “a light or lights and other aids to guide into Charlotte Harbor, Florida”. From this appropriation, both Gasparilla Island Lighthouse (now known as the Boca Grande Lighthouse) and Charlotte Harbor Lighthouse were built. Gasparilla Island Lighthouse was built at the mouth of the bay, while Charlotte Harbor Lighthouse was built eight and one-half miles further east near the middle of the bay. It marked the deepest water and a 90 degree turn where the channel turned to the north.
Although George Barbour’s description made the bay sound ideal for shipping, he left out one key fact … the waters of Charlotte Harbor bay are shallow, with most of the bay ranging from eight to twenty feet deep. The lighthouse itself was placed in water ten feet deep. It took some dredging to eventually construct a channel 200 feet wide and 12 feet deep to the docks at Punta Gorda. Most ocean going ships of the time needed water depths of at least 20 feet, so only shallow draft ships could call at Punta Gorda.
The Charlotte Harbor Lighthouse was completed in September 1890. It stood on a cast-iron pile foundation that provided a landing area just a few feet above sea level. On top of the foundation, the wooden lighthouse was described as being a square white one-and-a-half story structure, with green blinds and a brown roof, surmounted by an iron lantern. The lantern was painted black. The light shown was a fixed (not flashing) red light produced by from a fifth order lens. The light was 37 feet above mean sea level. A 16-foot long boat was hung on davits for the use of the Keeper.
Inside the dwelling, the first floor contained a bed room and a kitchen/sitting room. The second story contained another bedroom and a work room. The work room also doubled as the watch room. Iron steps or a ladder led from the landing to the dwelling, while inside the dwelling the steps were wooden. Access to the lantern room was through a trap door in the floor.
The lighthouse used the same design as the 1879 lighthouse at Northwest Passage near Key West, Florida. The designs are so similar that photographs of the two lighthouses are often confused for one another. If you want to tell the two lighthouses apart, the best clue is to look at the foundation pilings. Charlotte Harbor Lighthouse has a horizontal cross member that is at the waterline, while the horizontal cross beam for Northwest Passage Lighthouse is about six feet above the waterline.
John Watkins transferred from the Dry Tortugas to become the lighthouse’s first keeper. Not much is known about Watkins other than he was born in Great Britain and continued to serve at lighthouses in the Florida Keys until at least 1913. The lighthouse was a one keeper station until 1907 when an assistant keeper position was established. In 1893, Watkins traded stations with Robert J. Fine to serve at Rebecca Shoal. Fine was 32 years old at the time and was originally from Key West.
Charles W. Conoly served as Keeper in 1893 and Hiram A. Curry was the keeper from 1896-1899. After serving as keeper of minor lights in Charlotte Harbor for three years, Robert J. Fine returned to Charlotte Harbor Lighthouse to serve as its Keeper a from 1899 until the lighthouse was unmanned in 1913.
Assistant Keepers who served at the lighthouse were George E. Sharit (1907-1909), John L. Williams (in 1909), Charles H. Williams (1909-1910) and John M. Lopez (1910-after 1912).
In 1900 the light was changed to a fixed (not flashing) white and an oil room was built on rods suspended from the floor of the dwelling.
Phosphate deposits were discovered near Florida’s Peace River, and soon a new railroad was established to take advantage of the find. By 1907 the Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railroad was transporting the mineral for use as a fertilizer to a deep water wharf at the southern tip of Gasparilla Island. The new wharf could handle ships with a draft of 24 feet, doubling the depth of water that was available at Punta Gorda. The amount of shipping going to Punta Gorda steadily declined.
In October 1911 the light was changed over to an acetylene gas light. The characteristic of the light was also changed to fixed-flashing white. The acetylene gas was a less bulky fuel, allowing a 206 day supply to be stored on the landing platform underneath the dwelling. The light was equipped with a sun valve which automatically turned the light on when it was dark.
When the Seventh District Inspector visited the lighthouse in 1913, he reported that the best way to get to the lighthouse was to travel via the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad and Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railroad from the North to South Boca Grande. A boat could be hired at South Boca Grande for the 8 ½ mile trip to the lighthouse.
By 1915, it was reported that shoaling in the channel had reduced the usable depth from 12 feet to 10 feet. Near the wharves at Punta Gorda, the water was only 7 to 9 feet deep. With fewer ships going to Punta Gorda, and the reliable acetylene gas lamp in place, it didn’t make much sense to continue to have a manned lighthouse station. Sometime before 1918 the Keeper and his assistant left the lighthouse and the light continued operating automatically.
The unmanned lighthouse continued in operation until 1943. By that time, years of neglect had left the tower badly deteriorated and unsightly. Demolition was cheaper than restoration, so the dwelling was destroyed and replaced by a 10-foot tall pipe tower. The Fresnel lens was removed and replaced by a 200 mm electric lantern powered by batteries.
The cast iron piles for the foundation remained in place until 1975 when they were removed and replaced by a single steel piling. In 1978, the number 6 was added to the dayboard and the official name of the structure changed to Charlotte Harbor Light 6. The single pile structure is still in operation today with a red light shown from a solar-powered 155 mm plastic lens.
Unlike other Florida lighthouses, no personal accounts of life at this lighthouse have been found. The only sources of information remaining come from official government records, a few photographs and a post card titled “Light House on Florida Coast” mailed in 1906. Perhaps life was pretty dull and monotonous on the bay, but one can only hope that some account with fascinating stories will someday be uncovered.
Note: Neil Hurley has served as the historian for the Florida Lighthouse Association since its founding 10 years ago. His latest book, “Florida’s Lighthouses in the Civil War” will be published in the summer of 2007.
This story appeared in the
March 2007 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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