Bill Bags Cape Florida Lighthouse Tours
Volunteers Cliff and Sally Brody offer a history of
Key Biscayne’s most famous landmark
Our park was named in honor of Bill Baggs, the newspaper editor of the Miami News in the 1960s who first envisioned a state park here. He convinced the landowner to sell the property to the State of Florida and proposed a financial agreement to pay for it.
Baggs was also instrumental in making Civil Rights improvements in Miami, and in trying to end the Vietnam War, for which he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Our park opened 10 years after Baggs first proposed his idea January 1, 1967. We are home to the Cape Florida Lighthouse.
The Cape Florida Lighthouse is the oldest structure in South Florida, built in 1825 when Key Biscayne was an isolated, swampy, mosquito-infested island hundreds of miles from the nearest civilization at the north end of the Florida Keys.
This location was chosen because there is a reef system that starts 6 miles offshore and runs all the way down Key West. Wreckers operating out of Key West stationed ships all along the reef, waiting for ships from New England to crash into the reef so they could salvage their goods.
Key West was the richest city in the United States in the early 1800s due to all the salvaged goods that flowed its way. However, the owners of the lost ships and insurance companies were losing tremendous amounts of money, so they petitioned the U.S. government to build a series of lighthouses off the coast of Florida.
The Cape Florida Lighthouse has been restored twice since it was first built: in the 1960s when the park opened and then again in 1992 with a major restoration. In the exhibit we have metal pieces that were actually on the lighthouse at one time.
The large central piece in the middle is called a “lens room” and a “watch room.” This is where all the activity occurs in a working lighthouse. This piece was built in 1967 and is made out of steel.
Our park looked quite different when it first opened. The area was clear-cut and the mangroves were filled in. Almost immediately Australian Pine trees moved in and completely covered the undeveloped land. These trees lasted until Hurricane Andrew destroyed the park in 1992. We replanted the mangroves at the north end of the park and added fresh water ponds in the middle of the park.
Coral was the big problem for the ships. None of the reefs were on the nautical charts the captains used to navigate these waters. When their wooden ships plowed into these hard concrete-like reefs, they split open and sank almost immediately. The captains had no choice but to sign the salvaging agreement the wreckers placed in their hands. But today, coral reefs offer the most diversity of life in the oceans, and must be preserved.
The lighthouse tower sits right next to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1825 the tower was situated ¼ mile onshore. Key Biscayne is a barrier island that constantly shifts its shoreline. Mr. Matheson, who owned the lighthouse, had his engineers install steel plates and concrete into the foundations to shore them up.
The original lighthouse constructed in 1825 was 65 feet in height. It operated with 17 oil lamps and had no lens. It never rotated or flashed. The light was not especially bright, but it was the only light raised into the sky. Only a handful of Indians lived in South Florida in 1825, and they didn’t build any raised campfires, so this was the only raised light visible from the ocean.
After spending a day awake in the heat battling the mosquitoes, the lighthouse keeper had to spend the evening awake in the hot lantern room adjusting the 17 wicks and cleaning all the glass. Then, in the morning they had to carry up the oil for the next evening’s burn.
The tower is painted white, which has a dual purpose. The white paint serves as a day mark so the tower can be seen against the background of green vegetation, and it also protects the bricks from damage from saltwater intrusion. Part of the job of the lighthouse keeper was to paint the tower as required. Following the tower’s decommissioning in 1878, no one painted it for 115 years.
The Cape Florida Lighthouse is famous for the great Indian attack that occurred in 1836, only 10 years after the tower was built. Luckily the U.S. Navy ship Motto was out at sea, probably on pirate patrol, and heard the explosion and came in for the rescue.
Then, in 1855, the U.S. government agency that oversaw all lighthouses brought in Army and Navy engineers to evaluate all existing lighthouses and recommend improvements to them. At Cape Florida they decided to remove the top and add 30 feet of brick, and to add a Fresnel lens and hydraulic lantern for the first time.
The lighthouse operated until 1878, when a new lighthouse was constructed directly onto the reef 6 miles offshore. The Fowey Rocks Lighthouse replaced Cape Florida, and the lighthouse keeper here got into a sailboat and sailed out to light that tower. He gave up his trees, farm animals and vegetable garden to live in the middle of Biscayne Bay. The Fowey Rocks Lighthouse today is still in operation via the U.S. Coast Guard. It is an automated light station. You can even get the weather online from Fowey Rocks!
Reconstruction of the lighthouse keeper’s home was completed when Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park opened in the 1960s. We built the house based on photographs of the original, so it is fairly accurate but not perfectly true. The original home was built at the same time as the lighthouse.
The keepers probably ate very well, enjoying fresh fish and lobster daily. Although, as you can imagine, even with these delicacies they probably craved a steak or pork chop, but the mosquitoes killed their farm animals. A supply ship would stop in every two weeks from Savannah, Georgia to bring fresh supplies, old newspapers and brief human companionship.
If you want to learn more, join us on a tour and enjoy the rich history of Cape Florida Lighthouse!
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