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.

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