Roger Bansemer

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Information and illustrations about Carysfort Reef  lighthouse by artist & author Roger Bansemer.
Carysfort Reef Lighthouse
1852

Carysfort Reef Lighthouse
Carysfort Reef Lighthouse © Roger Bansemer

Carysfort Reef lighthouse print

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 sinker.

No one bothers you with annoying phone calls at suppertime, trying to sell you something you don’t want. It’s just you out there with your two assistants. At a place like the Carysfort Reef lighthouse, there’s 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. It’s 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 you’re 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 today’s 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 won’t 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 haven’t 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 didn’t 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 can’t 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 doesn’t 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 haven’t 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 can’t find out what’s happening on the six o’clock 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 weren’t 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 day’s 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 it’s private and closed to the public. I couldn’t even get past the gatehouse leaving the Hobo and Italian Marina the closest departure points.

If you’re 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. It’s the first undersea park in the United States and covers 178 square miles of coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangrove swamps.


©Roger Bansemer