Cape Florida Lighthouse

Sept. 10, 2019

Cape Florida Lighthouse, south end of Key Biscayne, Miami-Dade County, Florida


Station Established: 1825
Year Current Tower(s) First Lit: 1845
Operational: Yes
Automated: Yes, 1976
Deactivated: 1990-1996
Foundation Materials: Brick on coral reef
Construction Materials: Brick with steel stairs
Tower Shape: Conical
Markings/Pattern: Whitewashed red brick with black top
Relationship to Other Structure: Separate
Original Lens: Second Order, Fresnel, 1855

Historical Information:

The Cape Florida Lighthouse was completed in 1825. It was 65 feet high, of solid brick, 5 feet thick at the base. For years it guided the mariner as he passed the dangerous Florida Reef and led him into Cape Florida Channel to a safe anchorage from violent gales in the lee of Key Biscayne.

During the Seminole War, on July 23, 1836, John W. B. Thompson was the assistant keeper.  It was on that day that the lighthouse was attacked by Seminoles.  Thompson writes:

"About p.m. as I was going from the kitchen to the dwelling house, I discovered a large body of Indians within 20 yards of me, back of the kitchen. I ran for the lighthouse, and called out to the old Negro man that was with me to run, for the Indians were near. At that moment they discharged a volley of rifle balls, which cut my clothes and hat and perforated the door in many places. We got in, and as I was turning the key the savages had hold of the door." 

Thompson stationed the African-American at the door and then began firing his three muskets loaded with ball and buckshot, at them from a window. They answered with war cries and musket balls.  Thompson fired at them from some of the other windows and from the top of the lighthouse.

"I kept them from the house until dark.  They then poured in a heavy fire at all the windows and lantern; that was the time they set fire to the door and to the window even with the ground. The window was boarded up with planks and filled with stone inside; but the flames spread fast, being fed with yellow pine wood. Their balls had perforated the tin tanks of oil, consisting of 225 gallons. My bedding, clothing, and in fact everything I had was soaked in oil."

Thompson took one musket with powder keg and balls to the top of the lighthouse, then went below and began to cut away the stairs about half way up from the bottom. "I had difficulty in getting the old Negro up the space I had already cut, but the flames now drove me from my labor, and I retreated to the top of the house."  The keeper covered over the scuttle that led to the lantern, which kept the fire from him for some time. "At last the awful moment arrived," he went on:

"the crackling flames burst around me. The savages at the same time began their hellish yells. My poor Negro looked at me with tears in his eyes, but he could not speak. We went out of the lantern and down on the edge of the platform, 2 feet wide. The lantern was now full of flame, the lamps and glasses bursting and flying in all directions, my clothes on fire, and to move from the place where I was, would be instant death from their rifles. My flesh was roasting, and to put an end to my horrible suffering I got up and threw the keg of gunpowder down the scuttle. Instantly it exploded and shook the tower from top to bottom.  It had not the desired effect of blowing me into eternity, but it threw down the stairs and all the wooden work near the top of the house; it damped the fire for a moment, but it soon blazed as fierce as ever."

The African-American man called out, "I’m wounded."  Then spoke no more.  Those were his last words.  By this time, Thompson had also received many wounds and was literally roasting alive.  He decided to jump off the tower.  "I got up, went inside the iron railing, recommending my soul to God, and was on the point of going head foremost on the rock below when something dictated to me to return and lie down again. I did so, and in 2 minutes the fire fell to the bottom of the house."  A few minutes later a stiff breeze sprung up from the southward that was a great relief to the heat-tortured keeper. The Indians, thinking him dead, left the lighthouse and set fire to the dwelling and began carrying their plunder to the beach, where they made off with it in the keeper’s sloop about 2 a. m.

"I was now almost as bad off as before," the keeper continued, "a burning fever on me, my feet shot to pieces, no clothes to cover me, nothing to eat or drink, a hot sun overhead, a dead man by my side, no friend near or any to expect, and placed between 70 and 80 feet from the earth with no chance of getting down."  The African-American’s body had literally been roasted but there was a piece of his trousers that had escaped the flames by being wet with his blood. With this Thompson made a signal. Some time in the afternoon he saw two boats, with his sloop in tow, coming to the landing. They were the boats of the U. S. schooner Motto, Captain Armstrong, with a detachment of seamen and marines under the command of Lieutenant Thomas J. Leib, of the sloop-of-war Concord. They had retaken Thompson’s sloop, after the Indians had stripped her of sails and rigging. They had heard the explosion, 12 miles off, and had come to his assistance, scarcely expecting to find him alive.

The problem now arose of how to get the keeper down. During the night they made a kite thinking to fly a line to him but to no effect. Then they fired twine from their muskets, made fast to a ramrod, which the keeper received and with it hauled up a tail block, making it fast around an iron stanchion, enabling two men to be hoisted up from below. The keeper was then lowered and was soon on terra firma. He was taken to the military hospital.

Rebuilding of the Cape Florida Light, authorized in 1837, was not completed until 1846 because hostile Indians remained nearby in the Everglades. In 1855 the tower was raised to 95 feet.  The lighting apparatus was destroyed in 1861, during the Civil War, and was not restored until 1867.  Cape Florida Light was discontinued in 1878 when Fowey Rock Light was established, and the tower and property was eventually sold to Mr. James Deering of Chicago.

The state of Florida acquired the property in the 1960s and developed it into the Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park.  Through the cooperation with the Coast Guard, the lighthouse was restored and a glass 375-mm lens was placed atop the structure and a keeper's cottage was built.  The new light was re-lit on 15 June 1978.  It apparently fell into decline during the 1990s but the lighthouse survived Hurricane Andrew with moderate damage.