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Key Biscayne's Cape Florida lighthouse: a slice of island history

June 6, 2019

Just off Miami's coast is a very intriguing -- and beautiful -- slice of early Florida history. And, best of all, this attraction lies just steps from one of the area's most popular beaches. The Cape Florida lighthouse was originally constructed in 1826, when for miles around there were no settlements of any kind. (Seminole Indians, however, did hunt across Biscayne Bay in the Big and Little Hunting Grounds.) The reason the U.S. government erected this lighthouse in the middle of nowhere? Because just off this island and descending south/southwest, all the way down to Key West, lies the Florida Reef. Although today many of us enjoy snorkeling, diving, and fishing here, in the 1700s and 1800s, these jagged corals were responsible for many, many shipwrecks. To help sailing vessels avoid disaster in Biscayne Bay, the lighthouse was built. To achieve this bricks needed to be shipped about 1000 miles south from New York. The task was literally monumental.

 (The Cape Florida light at Key Biscayne's Bill Baggs State Parks. Photo by Island Runaways/Z.A.)

 

To keep the light burning, of course the light needed a keeper. Imagine arriving on the shore with your belongings, and glancing around to see brilliant blue waters against acres of wilderness. Those early lighthouse keepers, who lived here with their families, were completely isolated. Supply ships arrived occasionally, but in general the men, women, and children had to farm their own fruits and vegetables and catch or hunt for their dinners. At times the loneliness grew difficult, even for the most determined pioneers.

 (The keeper's quarters at the Cape Florida Light. Photo by Island Runaways/Z.A.)

 

If this kind of history interests you, it's worth time your visit to coincide with a guided tour. On Thursdays through Mondays, a park ranger leads tours of the lighthouse and the keeper's quarters twice daily, at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. (On the day of our most recent visit, the light tower itself was closed, because it is being repainted. But it will re-open to the public soon. Keep in mind that children need to be 42 inches tall to climb the steep spiral staircase inside.) The keeper's quarters were built of the same brick they used to construct the lighthouse, which made the home very sturdy, but also extremely hot, given the South Florida temperatures. Sometimes the mosquitos were so thick that the inhabitants could not sleep. Touring the house and learning about their way of life will give you a real respect for what these families endured, all to keep the light functioning.

 (Two bedrooms inside the keeper's quarters. Photos by Z.A. and Laura Albritton.)

 

Upstairs, there are three bedrooms, one for the parents, and two narrow rooms for children. The furnishings were very simple, as you can see. One compensation for such a difficult life would be the views. The scenery from the upstairs landing was so stunning we had to stop and take a picture.

 (A few of the Key Biscayne beach. Photo by Laura Albritton.)

 

The cookhouse was separate from the house, as was often the case in those days; this prevented fires from spreading to the main house (or that was the hope). We also saw a replica of the outhouse. As the ranger pointed out, it's not in use, or "else you could smell it."

 (The reconstructed outhouse outside the keeper's quarters. Photo by Island Runaways/Z.A.)

 

In the 1820s and 1830s, as white American settlers ventured further south into the Florida peninsula, the Seminole Indians were increasingly driven out, forcibly relocated, harassed, and killed. Three Indian Wars occured in Florida in the 1800s, and the Cape Florida lighthouse was the site of one of the most famous episodes. In 1836, Seminoles attacked the tower and set it ablaze. Only the keeper's assistant and a handyman were present, since the handful of settlers in the vicinity had heard news of nearby Indian hostilities. The two men retreated to the top of the tower, and suffered from gunshot and burns. One man died, while the assistant miraculously survived. He was rescued the next day by the crew of a naval ship who had heard an explosion and came to investigate. The partially destroyed lighthouse was not rebuilt and fully operational for another 10 years.

 (One of the most beautiful Florida lighthouses. Photo by Island Runaways/Z.A.)

 

Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park is an appealing place for an island getaway, with its nature trails, mile and a half of beach, two restaurants, fishing docks, and harbor. But beyond all those attractions, certainly the noble presence of the white lighthouse and the stories it has to tell make this one of our top Florida destinations.

 

Do you love lighthouses, too? If so, what's an island light that you can recommend? Leave us a comment below, or share some tips on our Guest Island Experts page.

 

 

 

 

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