Roger Bansemer

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Information and illustrations about Fowey Rocks  lighthouse by artist & author Roger Bansemer.
Fowey Rocks Lighthouse
1878

Fowey Rocks lighthouse
original painting of Fowey Rocks Lighthouse done in
acrylic on illustration board © Roger Bansemer

Fowey Rocks lighthouse print
Original Painting also available

Fowey Rocks Lighthouse

Even with the aid of the nearby Cape Florida Lighthouse, ships continued to run aground. To correct the problem, this iron-pile lighthouse was built about six miles southeast of Cape Florida directly on the reef that was claiming so many ships. The Fowey Rocks lighthouse is the sixth and northernmost in this chain of offshore reef lighthouses that extends down to Key West. Like most of the reef lighthouses in southern Florida, it was named after a ship that wrecked in the area, the HMS Fowey.

At the start of the construction of the Fowey Rocks lighthouse, a large wooden platform was built on the reef to hold workmen and materials. It was not an easy task to fabricate a scaffold at sea especially back then. There were no nearby lumber yards or home improvement centers where you could drive in and pick up what you needed. As unbelievable as it may seem, the piles for the working stage were built from local mangrove trees. All the mangroves I’ve ever seen are thin and twisted and are not likely candidates for any type of building material. However, the red mangrove and the less common Buttonwood mangrove (which grows further inland) can grow to a height of seventy-five feet.. Most likely these were used for the job.

From this interim stage, the iron pilings for the base of the Fowey Rocks lighthouse were driven ten feet into the coral reef. The depth of the water here is only about five feet making it easier to work in some ways but it also meant that the surf could be rough, making delays inevitable. Workers had to be carried to the site in a steam-powered launch: Steam engines took a long time to fire up and were slow moving. It wasn’t the same as zipping out to the site in a twenty-foot fiberglass boat with twin 150 horsepower Mercury engines. Weather, wind, and waves played a major part in delaying construction on all reef lighthouses. The first month at Fowey Rocks went smoothly but during the second month, conditions were so bad that the workmen pitched tents and lived on the platform so they wouldn’t have to be ferried over rough seas every day.

The temporary platform must have swayed, creaked, and groaned in the heavy surf. Swimming was not a skill most people had in those days, and here were men several miles out to sea with only a steam barge to rely on to bring them materials and food. Sometimes days went by when seas were too high for the supply boat to reach the construction site. The men basically had nothing to do but sit on their precarious perch and wait. The work was so difficult that the Fowey Rocks lighthouse took two years to build at a cost of $163,000.

Disaster was always a possibility with such a project and late one night, it was on the way. A large steamer was spotted barreling in the direction of the platform and before the captain of the Arakanapka realized what was happening, his ship had slammed into the reef just yards from the platform. The ship broke into pieces and sank. Weeks later, the Carondelet gave a repeat performance, clobbering itself on the reef, again just yards from where the workmen watched in horror. The crew of the Carondelet had thrown most of her cargo overboard in order to lighten the load, much to the delight of people on the shore who helped themselves to the bounty as it washed ashore.

Today, the 110-foot lighthouse still warns ships that pass Miami of the dangerous reefs in the area. It was automated in 1967 by the Coast Guard eliminating the need for a lighthouse keeper. Electricity, supplied by batteries charged with the help of solar panels powered the lighting and automatic lamp changers that were once lit by mineral oil and kerosene.

The octagonal, two-story, eight-room keepers’ house had an iron exterior trimmed inside with wood. Originally casement windows were used on the upper floor and the lower floor had green painted shutters but they have long since been boarded up. With its Victorian flavor, it must have once been even more handsome than it is today. A large tank for holding kerosene and another to hold fresh water were also slung under the lighthouse but now they too are gone.

You can barely see Fowey Rocks Lighthouse from the Cape Florida Lighthouse, and the only way to get there is by boat. Boat rental places come and go, but there are some on Key Biscayne at the Rickenbacker Marina (next to the Rusty Pelican) at 3301 Rickenbacker Causeway. That’s the closest place I found to rent or launch a boat. If you go out there, you might enjoy seeing the stilt houses in the bay. Just be cautious as the waves can grow larger than you might imagine.

©Roger Bansemer

Fowey Rocks Lighthouse, Key Biscayne, Miami
©Roger Bansemer