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Key West Lighthouse Reflects Time Gone By

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Photos Courtesy of Key West Art & Historical Society
Photos Courtesy of Key West Art & Historical Society

Visitors strain their necks looking above and beyond the Royal Poinciana trees, which demand attention with their showy orange blossoms, to see the highest point in Key West, the top of the Key West Lighthouse. Adjacent to the 65-foot lighthouse, the keepers’ quarters, museum and grounds beckon to those interested in shipping history. 

Landlocked at 938 Whitehead Street in Key West makes exploring this beacon easy. It is within walking distance of Duval Street and most major attractions in the Southernmost City.

This lighthouse dates to 1848 when Barbara Mabrity was its keeper. While in those days, appointing a woman as keeper was unheard of, she came to the position as the designated assistant keeper who succeeded the main keeper, her husband, Michael Mabrity, who died in 1832 of yellow fever. The Collector of Customs decided Barbara was not only qualified to be its keeper but needed the income to care for her six now-fatherless children. Barbara Mabrity continued to serve as keeper of the Key West light until the early 1860s, when she was fired at age 82 for making statements against the Union. (Key West remained under Union control throughout the Civil War). Three years later, she died at age 85.

The Mabritys also had cared for Key West’s first lighthouse, the U.S.S. Morris. The Navy had requested a lighthouse when it established a base there in 1823, figuring both military and commercial vessels navigating the shallow reefs off the Florida Keys would benefit. The Morris, commissioned in 1825 at Whitehead Spit, had 15 lamps fueled by whale-oil. Its care was labor-intensive.  In 1846, the Great Havana Hurricane destroyed it.

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Photos Courtesy of Key West Art & Historical Society
Photos Courtesy of Key West Art & Historical Society

When the Coast Guard decommissioned the Key West Light in 1969, it was turned over to Monroe County, which in turn leased it to the Key West Arts and Historical Society.

Near the entry to the exhibits is a First Order Fresnel Lens which originally belonged to Sombrero Key lighthouse. Sombrero Key lighthouse, which can be seen from the Seven Mile Bridge at the southwestern end of Marathon, was the tallest of the screw pile reef lights. A plaque at the Key West lighthouse museum says it “has been called by our Lighthouse Service Historian ‘the most important lighthouse built by General Meade.’ The brown, octagonal pyramidal skeleton tower stands 142 feet above the water on the outer line of reefs south of Boot Key. The lighthouse was first lighted on March 17, 1858.” The lighthouse museum also has a Sombrero Key lighthouse model constructed for and displayed at the Centennial Exposition in Chicago.

Photos Courtesy of Key West Art & Historical Society
Photos Courtesy of Key West Art & Historical Society

In the keeper’s museum is historic furniture such as a piano, rocking chair, photographs and décor the families might have utilized in the home. Photos and original artifacts relating to the Key West Lighthouse are displayed as well as several audio re-enactments of keepers’ tales in their own words. There, also, is a video of hurricane destruction and how residents had to rebuild.

The Keeper’s Quarters on the lighthouse grounds was completed in 1887 and housed up to two families. “The quarters offered its tenants 19th century luxuries and also allowed for the keepers’ families to live, work, and play amongst Key West’s inhabitants,” according to the historical society. One family even had a goat on-premises.

By 1966, the light was automated.

The lighthouse’s 88 stairs in an un-air-conditioned cone challenge some who ascend the spiral staircase slowly and carefully. But once atop, the climber is greeted with 360-degree views overlooking the city’s historic homes and streets that end at the water’s edge. 

The Keys’ offshore lighthouses stretch from Carysfort Reef off of Key Largo to Sand Key off of Key West.

The Key West Lighthouse is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. except on Christmas. To learn more, visit http://www.kwahs.org or call 305-294-0012.

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Jill Borski
Jill Borski
Jill Zima Borski lives in Islamorada, Fla. and is board chair of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association.

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