Information and illustrations about Cedar Key lighthouse by artist & author Roger Bansemer.
Cedar Key itself is one of the least populated areas in Florida. It was once a busy port, and the first cross-state railroad in Florida ran from here to Amelia Island on the Atlantic coast. Cedar Key now seems to be frozen in time. The nearest major town, Gainesville, is sixty miles away. You wont find a K-Mart, convenient stores, or fast-food restaurants anywhere nearby. A small, family-owned grocery store, a few nice galleries, and some good, locally owned seafood restaurants are what youll discover here.
In 1839, Congress authorized the construction of the Cedar Key lighthouse in the hope that development would bring settlers to the area, which would in turn help drive the Indians from the coast. But it wasnt until 1854 that the lighthouse actually became a reality and was lit for the first time. Built on a dune forty-five feet high, the lighthouse itself extends seventy-five feet above sea level. Sometime later, wood-frame housing extensions were added to each side of the brick Cedar Key lighthouse for the keepers and their families.
At the time of the Second Seminole War from 1835 to 1842, before the lighthouse was built, federal troops used Seahorse Key as a detention center for Indians being moved to the West for resettlement. Many Indians were housed at relocation camps in Tampa until they could be sent on their long journey west to Oklahoma. Indians who tried to leave the camps were placed in chains and put on ships that brought them to Seahorse Key. On the island there was little chance of escape, and it remained a stockade until the end of the Seminole War. It is hard to realize this was happening at the time my great-grandparents were growing up.
The 1880s marked the high point in the expansion of Cedar Key. Cotton production, sugar harvesting, and lumbering up the nearby Suwannee River just to the north were responsible for the growth of the area as an emerging port, but the event that put Cedar Key on the map was the building of the Eberhard Faber Mill. The mill produced cedar blanks for pencil and pen holders. Other mills turned out lumber and railroad ties.
As the Civil War started in 1861, the light at Seahorse Key was extinguished, and the island was once again turned into a prison. Because of the war, the railroad to Fernandina was destroyed, and a blockade along the gulf severely limited the use of the port at Cedar Key.
After the war, Henry Plant considered building his railroad to Cedar Key, but he couldnt reach a satisfactory agreement with the town and decided to lay tracks to Tampa instead. This sealed the fate of Cedar Key. With a larger, deep-water port and a new railroad at Tampa, Cedar Key quickly began its decline. The once-thriving lumber industry had already begun to falter because most of the trees had been harvested. A vicious hurricane in 1896 wiped out what cedar trees were left in the area and destroyed all the cedar mills. The factories were never rebuilt, and twenty-five hundred jobs were lost. By 1913, ships ceased to use the port at Cedar Key, and the town never recovered, either as a port or as an industrial area.
Today Cedar Key remains one of Floridas hidden treasures, with its old Florida charm. You cant see the lighthouse from Cedar Key; its a little too far away for that. The only way to get there is by boat. Im not a fisherman but from what I can see, the fishing is pretty good here. Fishingalong with tourismis certainly the major source of income for Cedar Keys residents. Some things have changed, however. In 1878, fish brought two cents a pound, mullet two cents apiece, and turtle six to eight cents a pound. If you visit today, dont expect to find prices quite like those of the old Florida.
Brown pelicans nest in trees in large colonies in the area around the lighthouse, building their nests ten to twenty feet above the ground. Both parents share the duty of raising one to three chicks. During the three and a half months it remains in its nest, each baby pelican will eat 150 pounds of fish. When I was there in June, the trees were filled with these hungry young birds.
Today the University of Florida in Gainesville operates the lighthouse as a center for marine biology research. It is the oldest lighthouse still standing on Floridas west coast.