Carysfort Reef Lighthouse, like Fowey Rocks just to the north,
got its name from a ship that wrecked in the area. Many of the stories of these
lighthouses are similar but just for a moment, imagine you are a lighthouse keeper at a
reef lighthouse in the 1850s. Pristine, azure blue waters and crystal clear blue skies
surround you. You watch beautiful white cumulous clouds build up in the afternoon and
distant rain showers move along the horizon. The fishing is unlike at any other place in
the world, with sea creatures plentiful and ready for the taking at the drop of a hook and
No one bothers you with annoying phone calls at suppertime, trying to sell you
something you dont want. Its just you out there with your two assistants.
At a place like the Carysfort Reef lighthouse, theres plenty of time to reflect on life, catch up on your reading, and enjoy every
sunset with an unobstructed view. You have a little world of your own, and you are its
ruler. Its a solitary life but one of tranquility with few needs and wants. What
more could you ask for?
Of course, the Keys are still a remote string of islands with no bridges connecting
them. Not until 1912 was the first railroad built to link the Keys so the reef lighthouses
were more remote than most. You are living on a tiny cast-iron island. What happens if
youre chipping rust from the ironwork with a chisel hammer and you slip, fall, and
break your arm? The only medicine you have at the lighthouse has come in a wooden crate
from the Lighthouse Board. There is no phone to call for help. The boat that hangs on the
davit or the occasional passing ship is your only lifeline to the mainland. You might not
even be able to leave at all if the surf is too rough. Even if you can get to a hospital,
care is minimal compared to todays standards.
What happens when those clear blue skies turn dark? The wind can blow so fiercely that
the lighthouse begins to sway. The azure blue water has begun to churn, and white caps
cover the ocean as far as you can see. The surf is beginning to break under those thin,
cast-iron poles holding up the lighthouse. As day turns to night, the swells rush against
the floor you are living on, rising and falling twenty feet. As you climb the winding
staircase to tend the light, carrying a bucket of oil, you can hear the wind thrash
against the iron walls of the narrow tube that reaches skyward. When you get to the
lantern room, a torrent of rain cascades in sheets down the sides of the glass cage,
making you feel as if you are inside some sort of cylindrical waterfall where nothing
beyond is visible. The noise of the wind is deafening, and you fear the glass might at any
moment implode, showering you with razor-edged shards.
A category five hurricane has come knocking at your door, but you had very little
warning except for a dropping barometer and a lack of sea birds that sometimes circle
around. You have at other times noticed their absence before a large storm but you thought
little about it until now. There was no radio to warn you, no AM or FM broadcasts. (Radio
broadcasts wont appear until 1921.) There was no shortwave transmission from ships
at sea warning of the impending hazard or telegraph to tap out a Morse code signal of
danger. (Shortwave radios and telegraphs havent been invented yet.) You have no
communication with the outside world. The lighthouse could come apart at the seams and no
one would know.
If you survive this hurricane and life returns to normal, then you might want to catch
up on your reading but on your last monthly journey to shore, you didnt find any new
books waiting for you. The Lighthouse Board usually sends you a rotating library every six
months, but it was delayed. With your meager salary, you cant really afford to buy
such luxuries. The few books you do have, you have read over and over and know by heart.
By now the sunsets that were so enjoyable in the past are simply a sign that a long
night spent tending the lamp is ahead. All those meals you could leisurely enjoy without
interruption are not that enjoyable since there is no real refrigeration of any kind. You
try to keep some of your food cool in metal containers suspended in the ocean, but this
doesnt keep things fresh for long. So food such as apples, carrots, and potatoes
spoil quickly, leaving you with a limited selection of dried or canned foods. You eat
basically the same thing over and over again, Fresh fish is the exception with grouper,
yellowtail, and snapper readily available and plentiful. Lobster along with conchs are
also abundant but knowing how to swim was not as prevalent as it is today so unless you
knew how to swim you might be out of luck there. Of course you have no diving gear,
snorkel, or facemask anyway, they havent been invented yet. You will have to rely on
traps or spear those lobsters.
Even on a good day, you might be wishing you could hear from a friend, but the only
friendly thing in sight is a sailing ship passing about five miles off the horizon. There
is no e-mail to check when you get bored. You cant find out whats happening on
the six oclock news. A loved one could be seriously ill and you might not even know
about it for a month. You did hear about the Indian attack at the Cape Florida Lighthouse
and about how the keeper there was practically roasted alive while the structure burned.
You wonder if something similar could happen to you some dark night. Perhaps pirates will
use your beacon to guide themselves to your door, overpower you for some small booty, and
leave you for dead. Who would help you? Such thoughts sometimes go through your mind as
you work through the night hours.
You and your two assistants are quite on each others nerves. One of them has eaten more
than his share of the dried bacon and the last egg when you werent looking which was
quite unfair and that has led to hard feelings. Now none of you have spoken to each other
for almost two weeks.
Today when I drive down the highway, my automobile air conditioner cools me from the
days heat. I can stop at any one of hundreds of restaurants or convenience stores
for something good to eat or drink. All along the Keys, I can rent a reliable boat with an
outboard motor that takes me to the reef lights at speeds of forty miles per hour,
compared to a trip that once took hours. While enjoying these modern conveniences, I have
thought about the durable and rugged people called lighthouse keepers. For all the
hardships they endured, they earned an annual salary of perhaps $480, but with few
exceptions, they were a proud and steadfast breed who took their jobs seriously and who
considered it an honor to be keepers of the lights.
I found this was the most difficult lighthouse in Florida to get to. The boat ramp and
rental marinas indicated on the map are the closest ones to the lighthouse I have found.
At the very northern tip of the Key Largo there is a marina at the Ocean Reef Club, but
its private and closed to the public. I couldnt even get past the gatehouse
leaving the Hobo and Italian Marina the closest departure points.
If youre in Key Largo, the John Pennekamp State Park, located at mile marker
102.5, is a good place for boating, camping, scuba diving, fishing, snorkeling, and
touring the area in a glass-bottom boat. Its the first undersea park in the United
States and covers 178 square miles of coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangrove swamps.