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Information and illustrations about Cape Florida lighthouse by artist & author Roger Bansemer.
Cape Florida Lighthouse

Key Biscayne, Florida
1825

Cape Florida lighthouse print

Cape Florida Lighthouse  © Roger Bansemer

Cape Florida lighthouse print

Key Biscayne marks the spot of the first seacoast lighthouse established in Florida. There were two other lighthouses built before this one—in St. Augustine and in Key West—but they were harbor lights. The Cape Florida lighthouse didn’t mark the entrance to a harbor but rather warned coastal shipping of the dangerous offshore reefs.

I visited the Cape Florida lighthouse on a hot sunny day. The biggest problem at the lighthouse today might be the traffic in getting there: I drive down four-lane highways, passed high-rise apartments, and maneuvered through a myriad of exclusive little shops selling everything from ice cream to high fashion. But tragic events that took place at the lighthouse in 1836 made any traffic congestion seem like a very small inconvenience as I thought back on it's history.

After entering the park, I walked to the beach where children played in the white sand while others swam or sunbathed in the warmth of the afternoon. As I stood by the freshly whitewashed lighthouse (it was red brick for years but now has been painted its original color),  I tried to imagine what it was like on what would become the most horrible and ghastly day in lighthouse history.

Cape Florida Lighthouse 
Cape Florida Lighthouse © Roger Bansemer
  Cape Florida lighthouse print

On the very spot I was standing, looking skyward, the day was much like it was over a century and a half ago. The winds gently blew in from the Atlantic Ocean, the sky was clear and bright, and the water was a radiant blue. It was peaceful and serene. Brown pelicans soared in groups close to the water with wings almost touching the surface. The lighthouse keeper had gone to Key West, leaving his assistant, John Thompson, in charge. With him was an elderly man named Aaron Carter who also helped out at the lighthouse and was most likely Thompson's slave. Together they went about the business of caring for the lighthouse and grounds, but there was an uneasy feeling in the air. The Second Seminole War had begun a year earlier, and although no threats of violence had been made towards lighthouse keepers, times were troubled.

It began when a group of white men killed the Indians' chief, Alibama. William Cooley, a settler in an area just north of what is now Miami, was justice of the peace at the time. He tried the accused men but the case was dismissed for lack of evidence making the Indians less than happy. Quite a bit less in fact. While Cooley was away from home, Indians attacked his house killing the children's tutor. Mrs. Cooley ran from the house with her baby in her arms but a bullet ripped through her and the baby, killing them both. Cooley's nine-year-old son was clubbed to death, his eleven-year-old daughter was shot to death, then his property was plundered and his house burned.

Cooley returned home and buried his family, then left the area with about sixty other people, escaping only with their lives. They went to Cape Florida-all the time knowing they were still in danger-then sailed south to Indian Key, where there was more protection. Cooley even returned to Cape Florida to help out at the lighthouse for a time; the Seminoles had moved inland and there was no bloodshed for the next five months.

Around four o'clock in the afternoon on July 23, 1836, a nightmare was about to occur. Thompson was walking from the detached kitchen to the keeper's house when a group of Indians appeared about twenty feet away. He ran for the lighthouse, calling to the elderly Carter to follow. At that moment, a volley of rifle balls pierced his clothes and hat. Many rounds also sunk into the lighthouse door, but Thompson and Carter both managed to make it inside. No sooner had Carter succeeded in locking the door behind him than the Indians had their hands on it. Thompson raced to the second window of the lighthouse with three loaded muskets and began shooting at the Indians who were gathered around the nearby keeper's house, throwing them into confusion. Then for a second time they "began their horrid yells."

Thompson managed to keep the Indians at bay until dark, but then they set fire to the door of the lighthouse while showering Thompson with a heavy barrage of bullets. Flames from the fire ignited a 225-gallon tank of oil, forcing Thompson and Carter to retreat to the top of the lighthouse. Thompson managed to take his musket and a keg of gunpowder with him. The two men tried to cut away the interior wooden stairs, but the rising flames quickly forced them onto the outside gallery, exposing them to more gunfire. They had little choice: They could either stay inside the scalding hot lantern room and burn to death or move to the outside catwalk and be shot to death.

The lantern room was full of flames, and glass was bursting and flying in all directions. To end the nightmare, Carter tried to jump to his death from the catwalk but was shot dead before he could get over the railing. Thompson's flesh began to roast, and in an effort to put an end to his horrible suffering, he rolled the keg of gunpowder into the flames. It instantly exploded, shaking the tower from top to bottom. Instead of blowing Thompson into eternity, however, the blast managed to extinguish the flames and collapse what was left of the stairs, leaving Thompson no chance of escaping the tower even if the Indians left.

It was still too hot to retreat into the lantern room, so Thompson had to simply lie on the circular walkway. All his oil-soaked clothes had been burned off his body, and his hair had been singed from his scalp. He was unable to stand or walk because his feet had been shot to pieces with three rifle balls in each foot. Thinking he was dead, the Indians plundered as much as they could fit into their canoes and Thompson's sloop, and left as mosquitoes feasted on Thompson's peeling, charred, raw skin all through the night.

When Thompson awoke the next morning, there was little to do but suffer. Carter's body was beginning to smell awful in the summer heat, and Thompson regretfully rolled it off the tower. Everything he owned had been stolen or burned to the ground.

What Thompson didn’t know then was that the sound of the explosion was heard twelve miles away aboard U.S. naval vessels Motto and Concord. The ships' concerned crews sailed to the still smoldering lighthouse and were amazed to find the lighthouse keeper still alive. Sailors tried to use a kite to get twine to the top of the tower in order to then hoist up a rope, but that plan failed. Meanwhile, Thompson lay in the sweltering heat with no food or water. It wasn't until a full day later that a ramrod and string were successfully fired from a musket and landed on the gallery railing. Thompson gathered it and then hoisted up a larger rope. Two sailors raised themselves to the platform and Thompson was finally lowered to the ground.

Thompson’s recovery was miraculous, and later that same year he was appointed assistant lightkeeper at the Garden Key lighthouse in the Dry Tortugas. Later, an inspection of the damaged Cape Florida Lighthouse revealed faulty construction. Although some lighthouses at that time were designed with hollow walls, this one was not. The contractor had built it hollow in order to double his profits by using only half the bricks that had been paid for.

It was not until 1847 that the lighthouse was repaired and back in operation—now with solid walls—and in 1855, an extra thirty feet was added to its eighty-foot tower. During the Civil War, the lighthouse was once again damaged and was out of operation until 1867. Ten years later, the new offshore reef lighthouse at Fowey Rocks put the Cape Florida light out of business. Abandoned, it deteriorated and stood only as a day marker for a full century until 1978, when it was once again restored and relit.

The lighthouse is part of the Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area. It’s open to the public, and the beaches at the park are nice for swimming.
©Roger Bansemer

For more information about the park, admissions, lighthouse tours, etc.

Cape Florida Lighthouse & Key Biscane Map
©Roger Bansemer