Visitors today to Florida’s Cape Florida Lighthouse in Key Biscayne can climb the 1846 tower and enjoy the spectacular views that the 95-foot tall bright white structure has to offer. But not so many years ago, none of that was possible. In fact, the conditions were once so bad at the Cape Florida Lighthouse that it is nothing short of a miracle that the lighthouse is still standing today.
The most widely written story about the Cape Florida Lighthouse is the ordeal of terror experienced by the keeper and an assistant when the original 1825 lighthouse was attacked in July of 1836 and burned by Seminole Indians. The lighthouse keeper, who was shot four times and severely burned, survived the attack, but his hired assistant did not. Attempts were made to rebuild the Cape Florida Lighthouse in 1837 and again in 1841, but both failed. Finally in 1846 the new and current Cape Florida Lighthouse, which this story is really about, was finished and first lighted on October 24, 1846.
Complaints about the height and brightness of the second Cape Florida Lighthouse tower forced the government by 1855 to increase the height of the tower from 55 feet to 95 feet and install a new 2nd order Fresnel lens for increased brightness.
The storied history of the decline and near destruction, more than once, of the current Cape Florida Lighthouse actually starts during the Civil War during the tenure of lighthouse keeper Simeon Frow who had become keeper in 1859. On August 21, 1861 Confederate sympathizers destroyed the lighthouse lens and captured the keepers. After the war was over, the government repaired the lighthouse and on April 15, 1866 the beacon was relighted.
However, it was later deemed that the Cape Florida Lighthouse was insufficient for warning ships away from the offshore reefs and it was replaced by the Fowey Rocks Lighthouse, which is located about seven miles southeast of Cape Florida. On June 15, 1878 the Cape Florida Lighthouse was extinguished and the lighthouse station was abandoned.
In 1888 the lighthouse was leased to a local yacht club; however they vacated the site in 1893. Then, because of growing tensions with Spain, the abandon lighthouse was designated a U.S. Signal Service Station to be used as an early warning system of a possible attack by Spanish war ships. At the conclusion of the short lived Spanish American War in 1898, the lighthouse was again abandoned.
In 1903 the lighthouse was purchased from the government for $400 by Walter Davis who owned some of the land near the lighthouse. In 1913 Davis sold the property to wealthy industrialist James Deering of the family that owned Deering Harvester that became International Harvester, with the stipulation that the lighthouse be restored. However, Deering initially ran into problems with the federal government who disputed his legal ownership of the lighthouse, a matter that was eventually resolved with great difficulty, going as far as to reach the desk of President Woodrow Wilson.
The engineers hired by James Deering soon realized that the most prominent problem faced by the lighthouse was erosion that threatened its collapse. Sandbags were placed at the base of the tower and jetties were constructed in an attempt to stop the erosion. Deering’s engineers then built a concrete foundation with steel casing for the tower. It’s unclear how much other restoration work was done in the next years, but it seemed that Deering’s interest was more on his nearby estate, Villa Vizcaya, and on his world travels. Deering’s death in 1925 dealt the lighthouse another blow when the ownership of the lighthouse and his estate was left to his two nieces. The 1926 Miami Hurricane dealt another blow and damaged the lighthouse, but it continued to stand, but very little work, if any, was done to attempt to save the tower. The keeper’s house eventually succumbed to erosion.
Over the next 20 to 30 years, because of the rising cost of maintenance and the damage caused by hurricanes, Deering’s nieces began selling off parcels of the estate. Then, between 1951 and 1955, Deering’s nieces sold the estate and formal gardens to Miami-Dade County for a museum and gardens to be open to the public. It is now named Vizcaya Museum and Gardens.
However, the lighthouse continued to be privately owned and for the most part stood as an abandoned relic of another time. But, even in its abandoned state of disrepair, it continued to be a popular subject for photographers and the publishers of post cards.
When developers wanted the area in the 1960s, a number of people stepped forward for the establishment of a State Park, which finally happened in 1966. The new park was named Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park after the man who spearheaded its creation. William “Bill” Calhoun Baggs was editor of the Miami News, from 1957 until his death of a heart attack in 1969 at the age of 48.
Finally, after sitting in disrepair for 80 years, the State of Florida restored the Cape Florida Lighthouse and in 1969 they built replicas of the keeper’s dwellings.
Then, exactly 100 years after the Cape Florida Lighthouse was decommissioned, the Coast Guard, using a 1930s vintage drum lens, re-lit the lighthouse on Independence Day, July 4, 1978 and the beacon was once again doing what it had been built for 132 years earlier.
But, by mid 1990s, due in part to damage caused by Hurricane Andrew, the Cape Florida Lighthouse was again in need of major repair and restoration, which was accomplished through a joint project of the State of Florida and the Dade County Historical Society. During its 1995-1996 restoration, the Coast Guard again deactivated the light. However, a modern optic was installed in the lighthouse so it could then be maintained as a private aid to navigation by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and it was lighted in July of 1996 as part of the Miami Centennial celebration.
More than once over the years, the Cape Florida Lighthouse became closed to be lost forever. However, the tenacious Cape Florida Lighthouse still stands today because of a combination of the quality of workmanship of the original builders of the lighthouse and the efforts of a few dedicated people who, over the years, took the initiative to make sure this icon of the Florida coast would remain standing as a reminder of our past and a monument to our future.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2013 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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