Sanibel Island Lighthouse
A carbon copy of the Cape San Blas Lighthouse in the Panhandle,
the Sanibel Island lighthouse was first lit in 1884. It was intended that the lighthouse be
erected earlier, but the schooner carrying the iron tower from Jersey City sank just two
miles from the island. Divers using newly developed hard hats that supplied them with air
salvaged all but a couple pieces of the lighthouse.
As far back as 1833, residents of Punta Rassa, a small town on the mainland, tried to
get Congress to build a lighthouse on Sanibel Island, hoping it would serve to attract shipping
and settlement to the area. But Florida wasnt even a state at that time, and
Congress wasnt interested. Ships heading to Key West from New Orleans would have
been served by a lighthouse as well as by businesses in the small town, but before
anything happened the town literally died out from hardship and disease.
After the Civil War, the port of Punta Rassa began to prosper and became a large export
center for cattle which, at that time, were driven in herds overland as there were no
railroads in the area. From this port, they were put on ships and sent to other locations.
Tampa was also becoming a booming port, and ships heading south from Tampa needed a
navigation beacon. Congress finally realized the need and approved the building of
the Sanibel Island
lighthouse. Its the last one heading south until you reach the Dry
miles away. The lighthouses on the gulf coast are far apart, unlike the lighthouses in the
Keys, where there are many more dangerous shoals and reefs.
When the Sanibel Island lighthouse was built, Sanibel Island was nearly uninhabited, and the keeper
and his family had 670 acres of land set aside for farming. Unfortunately, the sandy soil
wasnt good for growing much of anything...except children. One lighthouse keeper who
served there for twenty-two years had thirteen of them, seven from his first wife who died
and five more from a widow who already had five children. They added one of their own
making a total of thirteen. Some took over as keepers until 1941, making for fifty years
of family service.
In 1963, a causeway was built from the mainland to Sanibel Island, which now has become
somewhat of a nightmare of congested traffic. Before that time, a ferryboat brought
visitors and automobiles over from the mainland. Thomas Edison had a home and laboratory
in nearby Fort Myers, where he developed and refined many of his inventions including the
electric light. He and his friend Henry Ford were frequent visitors to Sanibel Island to
relax and enjoy the beaches.
The grounds and beaches around the Sanibel Island lighthouse are very lovely with white sand, sea
grapes, and sea oats. The beaches are accessible if you can find the elusive
parking spot. The lighthouse isnt open to the public and the keepers houses
are fenced in and are used by National Wildlife Refuge employees. You can walk all around
the site, however, and its a popular place for shelling and swimming.
Back in 1949, the lighthouse was automated, long before many other lighthouses were
mechanized. The ninety-eight-foot-tall lighthouse has a modern light beacon. One of the
original lenses is now displayed at the Sanibel Historical Museum, where you can also see
the Sanibel Post Office, built in 1927, and an old store, house, and tea room, all built
around that time as well.
If you like bird watching, the J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge
is towards the northern end of Sanibel extending into Captiva Island. Its 6,500 acres are
one of the best places in the South to view shorebirds such as ibis, herons, egrets,
roseate spoonbills, white pelicans, and dozens of songbirds. Many other native wildlife
species, including alligators, also call this refuge home. Photographers and naturalists
come from all over the world to visit this haven for wildlife. Its worth visiting if
you can tear yourself away from the shops on the island. A trip to the Edison home in Fort
Myers is also a wonderful place you wont want to miss.