Key West Lighthouse
As you drive into Key West, you might get the impression that
youve made a mistake in wanting to visit. A little persistence will pay off once you
get past the fast food restaurants and strip centers that have sprung up in recent times.
Continue to make your way into the heart of Key West, and youll find that this
southernmost town in the United States has a charm like no other place.
Key West has always been a mecca of sorts, and at one time in its history it was
the second largest city in Florida, just behind Pensacola. Key Wests residents had
the highest income per capita in the entire country, due mostly to shipwreck salvaging
operations. Sponging and cigar making were big businesses as well. Key West was a booming
community with five daily newspapers and one Spanish weekly. In 1890, the state of Florida
received ninety-five percent of its internal revenue from Key West, and the lighthouse
played an important part in the towns economy by guiding more than six hundred ships
into its port every year. In contrast, by 1920 the economy had collapsed, and the city was
five million dollars in debt, with eighty percent of its twelve thousand residents
on welfare. Today Key West thrives once again because of one
The Key West lighthouse was originally much closer to the shore but instead of the waterfront
eroding away, as is the case most of the time, landfill was brought in leaving the
Key West lighthouse further inland. Another lighthouse existed before this one. It was built in
1825 about twelve hundred feet from the present one, but a hurricane destroyed it in 1846
and claimed the lives of fourteen people who had taken shelter inside.
Hurricanes are particularly brutal in the Keys, since there is nothing to buffer the
onslaught of either wind or water and in 1935, one of the worst hurricanes in history hit
the area. It destroyed much of the Keys including Henry Flaglers Overseas Railroad,
which was built just a couple of decades earlier. Three years later, the government bought
up what was left of the railroad bridges and turned them into the Overseas Highway,
putting the economy back on its feet.
The builders of the present Key West lighthouse used foresight in their plans. Using chisels,
they gouged their way through the tough coral bedrock, making a round hole several feet
deep and using this as a base on which to begin laying brick. This entire brick structure
took only 48 days to complete at a cost of $7,247.
Its generally not thought that women were assigned as lighthouse keepers, but
there were several at Key West. Barbara Mabrity served as keeper until she was "urged
to retire" after a remark she made was interpreted as disloyal to the Union during
the Civil War. She was eighty-two years old at the time.
The Key West lighthouse was officially taken out of commission in 1969 after 121 years of
continuous service. Eighty-three-year-old Mary Bethel was given the honor of extinguishing
the light. She had served as assistant keeper alongside her husband for seventeen years
and as head keeper for an additional ten years after he died. The light didnt stay
dark for long, however. The Key West Art and Historical Society came to its rescue and
completed its loving restoration of this beautiful landmark in 1989. You can climb the
eighty-eight steps to the top of the eighty-six-foot-tall lighthouse and get a good view
not only of Ernest Hemingways house directly across the street but also of the
entire town of Key West. You can also see the working third-order Fresnel lens. The
keepers house is full of original furniture and displays, There is also a
first-order Fresnel lens that you can actually walk inside of to see its faceted prisms.
Key West is rich in history, so take advantage of all there is to see and do here when you