illustrations about Cape Florida lighthouse by artist & author Roger Bansemer.
Cape Florida Lighthouse
Key Biscayne, Florida
Cape Florida Lighthouse
© Roger Bansemer
Key Biscayne marks the spot of the first seacoast lighthouse
established in Florida. There were two other lighthouses built before this onein St.
Augustine and in Key Westbut they were harbor lights. The Cape Florida lighthouse didnt
mark the entrance to a harbor but rather warned coastal shipping of the dangerous offshore
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
© Roger Bansemer
|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
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 didnt 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.
Thompsons 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 operationnow
with solid wallsand 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. Its
open to the public, and the beaches at the park are nice for swimming.
information about the park, admissions, lighthouse tours, etc.