Sunday, July 29, 2007

A bizarre lighthouse history

Many people are intrigued by lighthouses for many different reasons. Whether it be the beauty of the coastline location of beacons, the architectural diversity, or the amazing engineering feats of building structures which have withstood the harshest of weather from their exposed locations, in many cases, for a hundred years or more. Perhaps you are intrigued because you are a boater and the lighthouse reflects a sense of security in a stormy sea. Or perhaps, there's just something about the wonder of a beam of light at night which rotates over a dark ocean for many miles.
For me, the most intriguing aspect of lighthouses is reading about the diverse history of these structures. When visiting these marvelous beacons, it helps to put into perspective what they meant to our forefathers and the part they played in making our world what it is today.

As editor for The Cape Cod's Lighthouse Encyclopedia, among my jobs is to research the history of each U. S. lighthouse as its page is being created. I have found many intriguing stories, and each lighthouse has a unique tale.

Of all the lighthouses within the continental U. S., the one which seems to have the most bizarre history is Cape Florida Lighthouse near Key Biscayne, Florida.

Even before the first lighthouse at this location was constructed, there were problems. Perhaps it was a foretelling of the fortunes of this light station when in August of 1824, Samuel Lincoln of Boston, who was awarded the contract to build the original Cape Florida Lighthouse, along with construction crew and building plans boarded a ship bound for the lighthouse site to begin building the much needed navigational aid to the treacherous shoals around the Florida Keys. The ship and its passengers were never heard from again, all assumed lost at sea.

The lighthouse contract was again put out to bid, and was finally constructed and lit for the first time late in 1825.

The early 1800's were a very turbulent time in South Florida. Seminole Indians, inhabitants of the area before the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century, didn't take kindly to the white man moving in. The white man didn't like the Seminole Indian, either, and in 1817-1818, the First Seminole War took place. Florida Seminole colonies were havens for escaped black slaves, and the U. S. Government tried to put an end to the "free land" for slaves and recapture the escapees. General Andrew Jackson and his troops soundly defeated the Seminoles in 1818 and the U. S. reached their objective.

Tensions between the two groups remained strained, but for the most part, violence was contained.

In 1835, the two sides were once again at war. A group of white men killed Alibama, the Seminole chief. In the subsequent trial, William Cooley, the Justice of the Peace for the area, (which is now Miami), oversaw the trial of the accused white men. He ruled that there was not enough evidence to convict the defendants and let them go free.

The Seminoles were enraged. The Indians attacked Cooley's home a short time later, but he was out of town. His family, however, was home and the Indians killed his wife, 11-year old daughter, 9-year old son, baby infant, as well as the children's tutor. Cooley arrived home a short time later to find his family massacred. He buried them hastily and escaped to the Florida Keys which afforded more protection for the Indian's hated target.

For a short time after the attack on his family, Cooley was an assistant keeper at the Cape Florida Lighthouse. The Indians, getting wind of this, decided to come looking for him. On the afternoon of July 23, 1836, a band of Seminoles arrived at the lighthouse. What they didn't know was that Cooley had months before left the lighthouse and was on to other work.

John Thompson, the assistant lighthouse keeper, was in charge of the lighthouse that day. The head keeper had business in Key West, and left Thompson and an elderly black man, (probably Thompson's slave), Aaron Carter, to care for the lighthouse. When the Indians arrived, the two men were outside on the grounds, between the tower and the keeper's house. They were fired upon by the Indians, but both managed to board themselves within the tower, barricading the wooden door just as the Indians came crashing upon it.

Thompson went up to a window on the second level and fired upon the Indians, which kept them at bay for a short time.

Knowing the two men were trapped within the tower, the Seminoles lit fire to the wooden door, perhaps as a way to enter after the men. The fire lit the large oil stores just inside the door, which then ignited the wooden steps. The inferno forced Thompson and Carter to climb to the top of the lighthouse and into the lantern room. The heat and flames were too much for the men, and they were forced out onto the balcony of the lighthouse. Here, they were easily within the gunshot range of the Indians, and both were wounded. Facing the prospect of either getting shot by the Indians or being burned alive by the inferno raging within the lighthouse, Aaron Carter decided his fate would be sealed by jumping to his death from the top of the lighthouse. Before he could jump however, the Indians picked him off as he was climbing over the rail, and his body remained on the balcony.

Thompson now had a choice. Badly wounded and intensely burned by the fire, his thoughts ran to his own demise. Earlier, when he climbed the stairs of the lighthouse, Thompson carried with him his musket and a keg of gunpowder. He summoned all of his energy and pushed the gunpowder keg down the stairs and into the inferno. The resulting explosion didn't totally destoy the lighthouse and kill Thompson, as he intended. It did, however, put the fire out.

Seeing no movement from the critically wounded Thompson, the Indians took him for dead and left. Thompson, still alive, had no escape from the top of the lighthouse, even if he were able to move. His feet were badly shot up by the Indians. Because of the inferno, his body was covered in oil, and all his clothing was burned from his body. He had no choice but to spend the night on the balcony, his body ravaged by mosquitos and the stench of Carter's burnt body nearby.

It would seem that that would be the way it would end for John Thompson. Miraculously, however, the powder keg explosion was heard 12 miles away on the U. S. naval ships Motto and Concord. The sailors, investigating the source of the explosion, found Thompson at the top of the lighthouse. It took them an entire day, however, to get him down. Miraculously, John Thompson not only survived the ordeal, but within a few months he was named assistant keeper at Garden Key lighthouse in the Dry Tortugas.

It would seem that this incident would be the highlight of any lighthouse's existence, and although it was, there were still incidents to come.

Upon inspection of the lighthouse after the Seminole attack, it was found that the brick walls, which were supposed to be solid, were actually hollow. In order to maximize profits, the contractor used only half of the bricks he was paid for.

It took 11 years and the end of the Second Seminole War before the lighthouse was finally repaired. The walls were made solid, a new iron staircase was installed, and an extra thirty feet of height was added to the tower and a new lantern placed on top.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, many of the South's lighthouses were either destroyed or rendered useless by the Confederates to keep them from being of use to the Union navy. Cape Florida was no exception. In August of 1861, the lamps and burners were removed from the lighthouse. In addition, the Fresnel lens prisms were smashed.

In 1867, after the end of the Civil War, the lighthouse was once again repaired and put back into service. It remained in service for only 11 years more. In 1878, the Fowey Rocks Lighthouse was constructed offshore and the Cape Florida Lighthouse was decommissioned.

The lighthouse remained, although left unattended. The shoreline, which was 100 feet from the lighthouse at the time of construction, was reduced by nature to only 10 feet from the lighthouse by the 1920's. The keeper's house and cookhouse were claimed by storms, and the tower seemed to be heading in the same direction. Then came Bill Baggs.

In the 1960's Mr. Baggs, a local newspaper editor, spearheaded a campaign to save the lighthouse. His campaign convinced the State of Florida in 1966 to purchase the lighthouse from the federal government, as well as a large tract of land on the tip of Key Biscayne. In 1967, Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park was created, and efforts were made to restore and preserve the lighthouse.

A full 100 years from the time it went dark, the lighthouse was relighted on July 4, 1978. The keeper's house, cookhouse, and remaining buildings were rebuilt and the light station was totally recreated to look as it did in its heyday. A happy ending for this troubled lighthouse would seem to be at hand, but, after all, this is Cape Florida. Nothing is ever easy.

In August of 1992, one of the worst storms to ever hit the U. S., Hurricane Andrew, struck South Florida. The lighthouse was right in path of the storm, and sustained extensive damage. The State of Florida had to once again step up to save the lighthouse. Major repairs were again done, and the lighthouse relighted for Miami's centennial celebration in 1996.

It would seem that finally, Cape Florida Lighthouse may have a tranquil and peaceful existence. It definitely has earned it. Looking back on the long and troubled history, however, one can only wonder.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Lighthouse Raffle

An article which appeared in the Portsmouth (New Hampshire) Herald News this past Tuesday (July 17), caught the eye of many of us here. It's a great idea, I think, and I'd like to pass it on.
This past April, Cape Neddick Lighthouse in Maine, (most know it as just "Nubble"), had substantial damage done to its grounds due to a very powerful Nor'Easter. Estimates have come in as high as two million dollars worth of damage done to the island which supports the lighthouse. As is the case with most municipal coffers these days, there isn't enough money in the town of York's budget to make all of the repairs needed.
The Sohier Park Committee, (Nubble is part of Sohier Park), and the York Park and Recreations Department, (which oversees the lighthouse), have come up with a unique solution to raise $100,000, which would help toward making safety improvements on the island and pay for some of the much needed improvements. Their idea is to run a raffle.
Basically, the raffle would work like this;
1,000 tickets would be sold at $100 apiece. The only prize? One winner gets to stay in the keeper's quarters of the lighthouse for one full week.
Sounds great, doesn't it?
There are a few glitches, however. First of all, the town Selectmen must approve the plan, (they seem to be rather positively in favor of it, as long as there are no problems with insurance matters). Secondly, the keeper's house needs some major upgrades, ("bathroom issues" and running water were high on the priority list). The Park Commissioners feel, however, that the money raised last year from Nubble's Gift Shop, (approx. $138,000), could be used toward those improvements.
If all goes well, raffle tickets will go on sale in 2008, and the winner will be able to spend his/her week at the lighthouse in the summer of 2009. ( My question to the committee, if I win, can I bring a friend? or two or three?)
My guess is that if the raffle does come off and turns out to be a rousing success, it would probably be a regular annual event, (my hope is that, at least).
I, for one, will be keeping a close eye out for the town's decision, and if/when the tickets go on sale, I plan to be near the front of the line!

Labels: , , , , , ,

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Wanna Buy a Lighthouse?

The U. S. Coast Guard has made this year's expendable lighthouse list available to the general public. In accordance with the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, a number of lighthouses will be deemed "expendable" each year and will be made available to municipalities and nonprofit organizations which apply for a particular lighthouse and can meet a number of requirements, (such as filing a financial plan for restoration and maintainance of the lighthouse, a plan for public viewing within a "reasonable" amount of time, proof of ability to secure insurance for the lighthouse, allowing the Coast Guard access to the working light, and much more). The entire process and requirements can be read by clicking on the above link.

This year's 13 available lighthouses are;


Penfield Reef ~~Located on Long Island Sound approximately 1 mile off the coast of Fairfield. This 35 foot tall lighthouse, constructed of wood and granite, was built in 1874 at a cost of $55,000 and lies upon a small "island" of rocks, (actually a cylindrical granite pier). It is said to be haunted by a former keeper who drowned nearby. The town of Fairfield seems to be quite interested in acquiring the lighthouse, but has not, as of yet, filed an application.

Saybrook Breakwater~~ Also located in Long Island Sound. It lies at the mouth of the Connecticut River in the town of Old Saybrook. Working in tandem with the Lynde Point Lighthouse, about a mile and a half away, it has been a working aid to navigation since 1886.


Bellevue Range Rear Tower~~ Marks the entrance to the Christiana River from the larger Delaware River, this 104 foot tall skeletal tower was built in 1909. Due to river dredging over the years, the lighthouse, originally built out in the Delaware River, now stands well within the Christiana River! **note to buyer, this lighthouse is within sight and smell of nearby Cherry Island trash landfill!**


Michigan City East Pierhead ~~ Indiana's last surviving lighthouse. Built in 1904, this lighthouse originally used the catwalk pictured at left for access to the lighthouse from the keeper's home on shore. Please note that only the lighthouse is available, the new owner has to get permission from the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, owner of the pier and catwalk, for access to the lighthouse! The Municipality of Michigan City seems to be the early frontrunner to get this lighthouse.


Whaleback Ledge~~ This 50-foot tall granite lighthouse lies outside Kittery. Accessible only by boat, the perspective owner will have to have deep pockets, as the maintainance costs alone for this off-shore lighthouse can get very, very costly. As of yet, no party has shown any real interest.


Cleveland East Ledge~~Located near the western entrance to the Cape Cod Canal, this may be the most expensive restoration project of any of this year's crop. Built in 1943, this 70 foot tall concrete lighthouse has had many years of neglect. Among other issues, the new owner must remove an extensive amount of asbestos inside the lighthouse, as well as layers of lead paint. Other than that, it makes a great Cape Cod vacation home!


Duluth Harbor South Breakwater Inner~~Also known as the Duluth Rear Range Light. New owner of this 1901 built 68 foot tall skeletal tower will have to deal with the frequent raising and closing of the large lift bridge right in its own back yard. No word, as of yet, of interested parties.


Brandywine Shoal~~Another off-shore lighthouse. This 45-foot tall cast iron "spark plug" lighthouse was built in 1914. Unlike most off-shore caisson-based lighthouses, Brandywine is surrounded by its own little island of "rip-rap" stone protection. An easy jaunt to Philadelphia may be one of this lighthouse's best (or worse, depending on one's outlook of the City of Brotherly Love), selling points.


Execution Rocks~~In Long Island Sound off of New Rochelle, the name is derived from the Revolutionary War. Legend has it, American prisoners were chained to the rocks here by the British at low tide. The prisoners would drown slowly as the tide became higher. A story like that would make great party chatter for guests of the new owners, don't you think?

Old Orchard Shoal~~Who needs a Manhattan penthouse when you could own this beauty in Lower New York Bay, about three miles offshore from Staten Island. Built in 1893, this 35 foot tall "spark plug" is in close proximity to Great Kills Park, offshore of the Gateway National Recreation Area.

West Bank Light ~~At 70 feet, it's the tallest offshore lighthouse in New York Harbor. Great views are afforded from this lighthouse, to Staten Island's South Beach and the Coney Island boardwalk. Built in 1901, the light is solar powered, but the Coast Guard won't let the new owner use the panels. There is no other source of power, it will have to be input by the buyer.


Cleveland Harbor East Pierhead~~Originally built in 1880 for use in Rochester, New York, this lighthouse was relocated to the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland in 1911. Tower is 25 feet tall, and the new owner must be fond of walking, as the lighthouse sits at the end of a three mile long pier.

Conneaut Harbor West Breakwater~~ This 60 foot tall concrete building sits on a 23 foot tall concrete base at the very end of a long pier. Two groups are interested in acquiring this lighthouse. The first, a Jewish school which wants to educate special needs students there, and the second being an Army and Navy Union Garrison.

Labels: ,

Monday, July 9, 2007

U. S. Lighthouse Facts

Many casual lighthouse enthusiasts will know some of the following facts about the lighthouses in the U. S., but only the very few hard-core lighthouse boosters will know all of these.
We start with the easy ones.
*The first light station on the North American continent was built in Boston Harbor in 1716. The lighthouse was destoyed during the American Revolution, and the present Boston Harbor lighthouse was built in 1783, making it the second oldest lighthouse still in existence in the U. S., (Sandy Hook, New Jersey holds the distinction as being the oldest lighthouse in the country, having been built in 1764)
*Boston Harbor also has the distinction as being the last of an era. In 1998, it became the final lighthouse to be automated. It remains, however, the last lighthouse in the country to be manned by Coast Guard personnel, performing all of the duties of a lightkeeper, except turning the light on and off.
*The last lighthouse built by the U. S. Government as an aid to navigation was Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, built in 1962. It also has the distinction of being the only triangular tower in the U. S., as well as the only one with an elevator.
*The state with the most lighthouses remaining is Michigan, with 104. (Many people are surprised at this fact, as most equate lighthouses to the ocean. Storms on the great lakes can be as fiersome as any on the ocean, and there are a large amount of shipping hazards throughout the lakes.)
*The tallest lighthouse in the U. S. is Cape Hatteras, North Carolina at 207 feet, (10 feet underground, 197 feet above ground).
*The tallest West Coast lighthouses are Pigeon Point, California and Point Arena, California. Both stand 115 feet tall.
*The first lighthouse built by the U. S. Federal Government was Montauk Point, New York in 1791, (lighthouse was commissioned by president George Washington).
Now the medium-hard ones.
*The first U. S. lighthouse to have a flashing beacon was Cape Cod (Highland) Light in 1797.
*The first lighthouse to use electricity was The Statue of Liberty in 1886, (was considered a lighthouse then because it was used as an official aid to navigation).
*The first U. S. lighthouse to use a Fresnel lens was Navesink (Twin Towers), New Jersey. It was also the first coastal lighthouse to use mineral oil in its lamps, and also the first U. S. lighthouse to use an electric arc lamp.
*According to most accounts, the most photographed lighthouse in the nation is Cape Neddick, (Nubble), Maine
*The first and only nuclear powered lighthouse in the world was Baltimore Light in Maryland. In 1964, a small nuclear reactor was placed in the lighthouse. It was removed one year later.
*The first American built West Coast lighthouse was Alcatraz Island Lighthouse in 1854, (before the prison was constructed).
*The first Great Lakes Lighthouses were Buffalo, New York and Erie, Pennsylvania, both built in 1818.
*The most expensive lighthouse built in the U. S. was St. George Reef in California. Built in 1891-1892, the cost was a staggering $700,000+ (1892 dollars).
*Now the hard ones.
*It is estimated that between 1600 and 1800 light stations were built in the U. S. between 1716 to the present. Of these, only about 600 remain.
*The U. S. Coast Guard still owns and "maintains" over 400 light stations. Each year, a handful are dubbed as "surplus" by the Coast Guard and are posted as "available". According to the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, municipalities and non-profit organizations could apply for these lighthouses as long as they met certain criteria, such as forming a financial plan for reconstruction, making the lighthouse available to the public, and proof of ability to get insurance for the lighthouse, among other requirements.


Sunday, July 8, 2007

Welcome to The Cape Cod's lighthouse blog. We have received countless inquiries about information on lighthouses from our website customers and visitors, asking about lighthouse info and the availability of lighthouse collectibles. We have tried to provide answers to your lighthouse info questions by creating our Lighthouse Encyclopedia, and according to your feedback and the amount of hits each page is getting, we think we've been able to produce a quality reference site for both collectors and lighthouse visitors. Many of you have commented on the ease of which you've been able to find information on particular lighthouses, a task which in the past took sometimes hours of searching through website after website, many of which contained absolutely no pertinent information whatsoever, before you either finally found the info you were seeking or just gave up from sheer exhaustion! (We know, we've done that countless times in order to weed through the fluff and get to the "brass tacks", if you will, in the process of creating each Encyclopedia page). It's still a work in progress, as each page takes awhile to create, but we're proud of our work and also proud to say that as of this posting, we now have 318 U. S. lighthouses within our data base, with LOTS more to go!

Please feel free to post your comments to this blog. Use it as a forum for your questions and comments, but please keep it clean and polite.

I will be posting updates on latest lighthouse news, SCAASIS collectible news, giving you insights and stories on various lighthouses, providing updates on the website, answering your questions, plus lots more within this blog. I hope you find it helpful, fun, and educational!

Please save this page into your favorites and come back to visit often.

Labels: , , , ,