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Information and illustrations about  Key West lighthouse by artist & author Roger Bansemer.
Key West Lighthouse

Key West, Florida
1825, 1848

Key West lighthouse print
Key West Lighthouse © Roger Bansemer (painting done in acrylic on illustration board)
Key West lighthouse print

Key West Lighthouse

As you drive into Key West, you might get the impression that you’ve 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 you’ll 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 town’s 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 thing—tourism.

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 Flagler’s 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.

It’s 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 didn’t 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 Hemingway’s 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 keeper’s 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 visit.

©Roger Bansemer

Key West Lighthouse Map
©Roger Bansemer