Cape Florida Light

The Cape Florida Light is a lighthouse on Cape Florida at the south end of Key Biscayne in Miami-Dade County, Florida. It was built in 1825 and operated, with interruptions, until 1878, when it was replaced by the Fowey Rocks lighthouse. The lighthouse was put back into use in 1978. The lighthouse marked a reef four miles (6 km) (6 km or 7 km) off-shore, and still marks the Florida Channel, the deepest natural channel into Biscayne Bay. The construction contract called for a 65-foot-tall (20 m) tower with walls of solid brick, five feet thick at the bottom tapering to two feet thick at the top. It was later found that the contractor had scrimped on materials and built hollow walls. The first keeper of the lighthouse was Captain John Dubose, who served for more than ten years. In 1835 a major hurricane struck the island, damaging the lighthouse and the keeper's house, and putting the island under three feet of water.

Attack on the lighthouse

When the Second Seminole War started in 1835 the Seminoles attacked the few European-American settlers in southern Florida. In January 1836 the Seminoles massacred the family of William Cooley at their coontie plantation on the New River, in what is now Fort Lauderdale. On hearing of the massacre, the settlers on the mainland around the Miami River crossed over Biscayne Bay to the lighthouse. As the island was not considered safe, the settlers and Captain Dubose's family moved on to Key West to seek refuge. Later in January, Lt. George M. Bache, U.S. Navy, arrived from Key West with a small work party to fortify the lighthouse tower by boarding up the ground floor windows and reinforcing the door. On July 18, 1836, Captain Dubose left the lighthouse on leave to visit his family in Key West, leaving his assistant keeper, John W. B. Thompson, in charge, with an African-American assistant, Aaron Carter.

Five days later, on July 23, 1836, a band of Seminoles attacked the lighthouse. Thompson and Carter were able to make it into the lighthouse tower, although Thompson later reported that rifle balls passed through his clothes and hat, and that the Seminoles grabbed hold of the door as he was turning the key in the lock. Thompson exchanged rifle fire with the Seminoles from upper windows in the tower for the rest of the day, but after dark the Seminoles were able to approach the tower and set fire to the door and a boarded up window at ground level. Rifle balls had penetrated tanks in the bottom of the tower which held 225 gallons of lamp oil for the light, and the oil caught fire from the burning door. Thompson's clothing was soaked in the oil, and he and Carter retreated to the top of the tower, taking a keg of gunpowder, balls, and a rifle with them. The two men managed to cut away a part of the wooden stairway in the tower before being driven out of the top of the tower by the flames.

The flames coming up the interior of the tower were so bad that Thompson and Carter were forced to leave the lantern at the top and lie down on the 2-foot-wide (0.61 m) platform that ran around the outside of the lantern. Thompson's clothes were burning, and both he and Carter had been wounded by the Seminoles' rifle balls. The lighthouse lens and the glass panes of the lantern were shattering from the heat. Sure that he was going to die and wanting it to end quickly, Thompson threw the gunpowder keg down the inside of the tower. The keg exploded, but did not topple the tower. It dampened the fire briefly, but the fire soon was as fierce as ever. The fire did die down soon after, and Thompson then discovered that Carter had died from his wounds and from the fire.

The next day Thompson saw the Seminoles looting and then burning the other buildings at the lighthouse station. They apparently thought that Thompson was dead, as they had stopped firing at him. After the Seminoles left, Thompson remained trapped at the top of the tower. He had three rifle balls in each foot, and the stairway in the tower had been burned away. Later that day he saw an approaching ship. The United States Navy schooner Motto had heard the explosion of the gunpowder keg from twelve miles (19 km or 22 km) away and had come to investigate. The men from the ship were surprised to find Thompson alive. The sailors and marines from the Motto were unable to get Thompson down from the tower, and left the island for the night. The next day the men from the Motto and from another schooner, the Pee Dee, returned and devised a means of getting Thompson off of the tower by firing a ramrod tied to a small line up to him, which was then used to haul up a rope strong enough to lift two men to the top of the tower. Thompson was taken first to Key West, and then to Charleston, South Carolina, to recover from his wounds.

Later history

In 1846 a contract was let to rebuild the lighthouse and the keeper's dwelling. The contractor was permitted to reuse the old bricks from the original tower and house. New bricks were also sent from Massachusetts. The contract went to the low bidder at US$7,995. The lighthouse was completed and re-lit in April, 1847. The new keeper was Reason Duke, who had lived with his family on the Miami River until the Second Seminole War forced evacuation to Key Biscayne and then on to Key West. While in Key West his daughter Elizabeth had married James Dubose, son of John Dubose, the first keeper.

Temple Pent became the Cape Florida Light keeper in 1852. He was replaced by Robert R. Fletcher in 1854. Charles S. Barron became the keeper in 1855. The height of the tower was extended to 95 feet (29 m) in 1855, to extend the reach of the light beyond the off-shore reefs. That year the original lamp and lens system was replaced by a second order Fresnel lens brought to Cape Florida by Lt. Col. George Meade of the Topographical Bureau of the United States Army Corps of Engineers. The extended tower with its new, more powerful light, was re-lit in March 1856.

Simeon Frow became the keeper in 1859. Confederate sympathizers destroyed the lighthouse lamp and lens in 1861. The light was repaired in 1866, and Temple Pent, who had served as the lighthouse keeper in 1853-1854, was re-appointed keeper. He was replaced in 1868 by John Frow, son of Simeon Frow, who had served as the keeper just before the Civil War. John Frow continued as keeper until the Cape Florida Light was taken out of service in 1878. Even with its superior height and more powerful lamp and lens, the Cape Florida Light was still deemed to be insufficient for warning ships away from the offshore reefs, and it was decided to build an iron-pile lighthouse on Fowey Rocks, seven miles (11 km) southeast of Cape Florida. When that was completed 1n 1878, the Cape Florida lighthouse was taken out of service. Keeper John Frow and his father Simeon became the first keepers at the new lighthouse at Fowey Rocks.

From 1888 to 1893, the Cape Florida lighthouse was leased by the United States Secretary of the Treasury for a total of US$1.00 (20 cents per annum) to the Biscayne Bay Yacht Club for use as its headquarters. It was listed as the southernmost yacht club in the United States, and the tallest in the world. After the lease expired, the yacht club moved to Coconut Grove, where it still exists.

In 1898, in response to the growing tension with Spain over Cuba that resulted in the Spanish-American War, the Cape Florida lighthouse was briefly made U.S. Signal Station Number Four, one of 36 along the U.S. East Coast and Gulf Coast from Maine to Texas. The Signal Stations were established to provide an early warning of the approach of the Spanish fleet.

The land around the lighthouse at the end of the 19th century belonged to Waters Davis. His parents had purchased the title to a Spanish land grant for the southern part of Key Biscayne soon after the United States acquired Florida from Spain, and had sold the 3 acres (12,000 m2) the lighthouse was built on to the U.S. government in 1825. Although there had been competing claims on the land, Davis was able to resolve most of them and received a patent from the United States government for his land in 1898. In 1903 Davis bought the abandoned Cape Florida lighthouse from the United States Treasury for US$400.

Waters Davis sold his Key Biscayne property, including the lighthouse, to James Deering, International Harvester heir and owner of Villa Vizcaya in Miami, in 1913. One stipulation that Davis had made in the sale to Deering was that the Cape Florida lighthouse be restored. When Deering wrote to the U.S. government seeking specifications and guidelines for the lighthouse, government officials were taken aback by the request, wondering how a lighthouse could have passed into private hands. It was soon discovered that an Act of Congress and two Executive Orders, in 1847 and 1897, had reserved the island for the lighthouse and for military purposes. Patient legal work eventually convinced the U.S. Congress and President Woodrow Wilson to agree to recognize Deering's ownership of the Cape Florida area of Key Biscayne, including the lighthouse.

Beach erosion was threatening to undermine the lighthouse. Examination of records showed that a quarter-mile of beach had washed away in front of the lighthouse in the 90 years since it had been built. Deering had engineers inspect the tower to see what restoration work was needed. The engineers discovered that the foundations for the tower were only four feet deep. Deering ordered sandbagging at the base of the tower and the construction of jetties in an attempt to stop the erosion. The engineers first proposed driving pilings under the lighthouse to bedrock to support the tower, but soon discovered that there was no hard bedrock. The engineers then built a concrete foundation with steel casing, which was found to be in excellent condition when inspected in 1988. The tower has subsequently survived the eyewall of the 1926 Miami Hurricane and the close passage of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

The southern third of Key Biscayne, including the lighthouse, was bought by the State of Florida in 1966, and became what is now the Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park. The lighthouse tower and keeper's house have been restored. In 1978 the Coast Guard installed an automated light in the tower as a navigational aide, particularly to help boaters find the Florida Channel at night.

Depictions in popular media

As a Miami landmark, the lighthouse was featured in several episodes of the television series Miami Vice, most extensively during the two-part episode "Mirror Image" (first aired May 6, 1988). At that time, it had not yet been repainted and still had the exposed red brick exterior. This was not the lighthouse's first appearance in popular media, however. It was also featured briefly at the end of the 1945 John Wayne film They Were Expendable and as the backdrop of a grisly murder in the 1985 Kurt Russell thriller The Mean Season. The lighthouse made its most recent television appearance in the third season of Burn Notice.


2 photos

Building Activity

  • OpenBuildings
    OpenBuildings updated 9 media, updated a digital reference, uploaded a media file and added a digital reference
    hzib capefloridalight
    about 4 years ago via
  • OpenBuildings
    OpenBuildings updated a digital reference
    about 5 years ago via Annotator