Sentinels of the Florida Keys are beacons of light and history that mark precious coral reefs while recalling yesteryear. Keys’ offshore lighthouses stretch from Carysfort Reef to Sand Key while one inland in Key West shares an account of times past while preserving its story in the present.
Visitors crane 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. Being landlocked at 938 Whitehead Street makes exploring this beacon of light easy enough but the 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 of the city’s historic homes and streets that end at the water’s edge.
This lighthouse dates to 1848 and Barbara Mabrity was its keeper. While in those days, appointing a woman as keeper was unheard of, she came to the position honestly enough as the designated assistant keeper who succeeded the main keeper, her husband. When Michael Mabrity died in 1832 of yellow fever, the Collector of Customs decided she was not only qualified to be its keeper but needed the income to care for her six now-fatherless children.
The Mabritys had cared for the first lighthouse in Key West, commissioned in 1825 at Whitehead Spit. Its 15 lamps were fueled by whale-oil and its care was labor-intensive. The Great Havana Hurricane of 1846 destroyed this lighthouse; which was called the USS Morris.
The U.S. Navy is credited with instituting a lighthouse in Key West when it established a base there in 1823. A lighthouse was deemed essential in assuring the safe arrival of both military and commercial vessels that were navigating the shallow reefs off the Florida Keys.
According to the Key West Arts and Historical Society which operates the lighthouse and keepers museum, 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.
After 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.
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 is also a video of hurricane destruction and how residents had to rebuild.
The Keeper’s Quarters on the lighthouse grounds was completed in 1887 and was able to house 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.
There also is a First Order Fresnel Lens on premises 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 said 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.
Several delightful Seward Johnson sculptures decorate the grounds. Johnson is widely known for his sculptures depicting people engaged in everyday activities. He divides his time between Key West and New Jersey, where he works with the Sculpture Foundation.
Open daily from 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. except on Christmas, learn more about the Key West Lighthouse and Keepers Quarters Museum at: http://www.kwahs.org or call 305-294-0012.