Light duties

The 1826 lighthouse and keeper’s quarters in the Dry Tortugas. Part of Fort Jefferson, which later enclosed them, is seen in the background.

AMID a hoisting of the American ensign, a salute of thirteen guns and a greater number of champagne toasts, Lieutenant Matthew C. Perry in March 1822 extended the dominion of the United States to a desolate coral cay that he named Thompson’s Island, better known before and ever since as the island of Key West.1

Just days later, Perry penned a dispatch to the Navy Secretary, urging construction of lighthouses at four crucial points along the treacherous but much-trafficked strait between the Atlantic and the Gulf. It seemed to Perry that safeguarding American “lives and fortunes,” of which untold numbers had been lost on the 200-mile-long Florida Reef, was a matter of justice and humanity. “I should feel diffident in thus intruding my opinions,” he wrote, “were I not fully impress’d with the belief that the Subject requires the prompt and serious consideration of Government.”2

As much to protect trade as to save lives, government responded–if less promptly and seriously than Perry had desired–by financing four lighthouses over the next four years, at or near the places Perry envisioned. These, together with a stationary lightship (eventually joined by a second floating light) came, in 1831, under the jurisdiction of William A. Whitehead, on whom, with the duties of collector of customs for the Key West district, devolved the associated title of Superintendent of Lights.

The four lighthouses were very similar in materials, dimensions and mechanisms. The same New England engineer built three of the towers to identical specifications: these were, from northeast to southwest, the Cape Florida light north of the entrance to Biscayne Bay, the Key West light above Whitehead’s Point, and the Bush Key or Garden Key light in the Dry Tortugas. Along with a fourth lighthouse on Sand Key, which marked the channel leading to Key West, all were conical towers of whitewashed brick, 65 feet tall. Each tower was crowned by a domed lantern of iron and glass, to which a keeper ascended a circular stairway each evening to light an array of lamps, whose radiance was magnified by parabolic reflectors. The lights were fueled by whale oil processed in the north.

The southwest of Key West island in 1838, showing the lighthouse on Whitehead Point. The custom house complex is in the foreground.

Keeper Miguel or Michael Mabrity lit the fifteen lamps of the Key West lighthouse for the first time in 1826. The lantern’s light shone from a tower just a little more than a mile from town. Visible from almost everywhere on the island, the lighthouse must, by its known location and elevation, have been an indispensable reference point for Whitehead’s land and coast survey in 1829. Two years later, near the end of his arduous journey to take up the collector’s job, Whitehead’s heart must have leapt as the familiar landmark came into view. Under his supervision Mabrity’s widow Barbara would become keeper in 1832; she tended the light for almost 40 years, surviving its destruction in the devastating hurricane of 1846, and going on to maintain the lighthouse that replaced it.

The lantern on Sand Key first pierced the darkness a year after Key West’s. As suited its crucial position, it was the only revolving light under Whitehead’s authority. Consequently, its keeper had the additional burdens of winding up and restarting a clockwork mechanism, and doing whatever was required to maintain an exact 54-second rotation.

In 1829 John Flaherty, Sand Key’s first lighthouse keeper, inaugurated a “marine telegraph” on the island, a signal system whereby ships’ captains could identify their vessels and cargoes as they passed. This improvement was of particular value to ship owners, merchants, insurers, and of course to Whitehead as collector of customs.3

Flaherty died in 1830, and for the next two years the Sand Key light was tended by his widow Rebecca. With genuine pride, Whitehead called hers “the best Light on the coast.”4 The telegraph service may have suffered some interruption but its usefulness would not have waned; it was certainly in force again no later than 1835.5 With its companion on Key West, the Sand Key lighthouse was destroyed in the 1846 hurricane.

Such aids to navigation were not without their troubles, arising from structural or mechanical concerns, supply shortages and personnel issues. Difficulties seemed to increase with the distance from Whitehead’s custom house.

In order to ward vessels away from the extensive and perilous Carysfort Reef off Key Largo, it had been thought best to station a “floating light,” consisting of lanterns suspended from or mounted atop a ship’s masts. Such lightships were highly susceptible to rot and leakage, and required frequent repair. The first such craft marking the shoals of Carysfort fell victim to the elements; its replacement, the lightship Florida, was moored there beginning in 1830. According to Whitehead the Florida was “easily distinguished, as two distinct Lights are shown, which can generally be seen at the distance of 12 miles.”6 Its two lanterns probably differed in no other detail than their height.

Although its captain, John Whalton, gave ten years of faithful service, ending with his death in an 1836 Indian attack, the Florida was frequently criticized for lights that appeared faint or invisible to passing vessels.7 Whitehead had its lanterns restored quickly after extensive damage from a September 1835 hurricane, but favored replacing the Carysfort lightship with a fixed tower of 90 feet–much taller than any within his district–“even if it must be built on the rocks near which the ship is anchored.”8

Of the gestures of justice and humanity proposed by Matthew Perry, those in the Dry Tortugas and on Cape Florida, marking the two extreme ends of the Reef, were the first to be authorized by Congress. They became also the chief cause of worry for the Superintendent of Lights. The Cape Florida light, once it became engulfed in the Seminole Wars, turned into a focus of Indian ire and a site of horror: that story merits a chapter in Whitehead’s life all by itself. The lighthouse on Garden Key in the Tortugas, some 70 miles from Key West, will represent for now the challenges bred by distance and desolation.

In 1835 Whitehead solicited bids to paint and whitewash two of the Florida Keys lighthouses.

Superintendents were required to inspect all lights in their districts annually, and Whitehead conducted one of his first such inspections on a two-day visit to the Tortugas in May 1831. He was compelled to return in December, however, upon witnessing the ship Florence limp into Key West harbor. The brand-new vessel arrived “under the charge of a wrecker” and “leaking badly,” having run aground on Loggerhead Key in the Tortugas. Its captain blamed the incident on “the badness of the Light at those Islands,” prompting Whitehead to launch an investigation. The ship’s log recorded the light as very faint or completely extinguished for four successive nights, and the keeper admitted to having been away for more than a week, leaving “his wife, an invalid, and a black woman to take care of the Light during his absence.”9

The same keeper had gone out to assist a stranded brig a month earlier, as no wrecking vessels were nearby. He then sought compensation for helping in the salvage. The court in Key West rejected all but his basic costs, not from suspicion of his motives, but lest a greater award tempt other keepers “to lead vessels into the very difficulties against which their lights are intended to guard….”10 Such were the complexities of commerce along the Florida Reef.

Further research promises to reveal much more about Whitehead’s oversight of lighthouses and lightships in the Key West district. But it’s already clear that he was one of the most attentive to hold the office. In 1835, when superintendents nationwide were asked to suggest improvements to the lights in their jurisdictions, Whitehead’s ideas accounted for fully one-fifth of the total received.

Not surprisingly, he proposed improvements or replacements for existing lights: new lighthouses at Carysfort Reef and on both sides of the Tortugas; a lightship to mark the northwest passage out of Key West harbor; a stone wall or pier to reinforce the lighthouse at Sand Key.

But his proposals went beyond the brick-and-mortar: he advised year-round use of the thinner, so-called “winter pressed” strain of oil for “the superior brilliancy of its light”; he recommended different combinations of lights, red and white, stationary and rotating, and double lights arranged one above the other; he suggested buildings be colored “according to the character of their lights,” to serve as daymarks; and he wished keepers to be equipped with barometers and thermometers (“Rutherford’s maximum and minimum,” to be precise), and to enter their readings in a journal, as he did.11

Whitehead’s years on Key West were devoted to elevating Keys society in the eyes of often apprehensive, sometimes biased outsiders. His mission extended even to defending the lights from criticisms that they were ineffective, or that there were not enough of them, and from the far more invidious charge that some lights functioned as decoys, luring mariners onto the Reef so as to enrich the wrecking economy of the Keys.

Whitehead’s tenure as Superintendent of Lights would end in 1838 with his departure from the custom house. In the same year, Congress began to transfer supervision of lighthouses to military authorities. From Whitehead there could be no apologies: in his eyes “there are not within any district of the United States five as good lights as those within the district of Key West.”12

Copyright © 2022-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] “Extract of a letter from an officer on board the U. S. schooner Shark, off the Moro Castle, Havana, March 30, to his friend in this place,” Norwich (Conn.) Courier 1 May 1822 3:2.

[2] M. C. Perry, U. S. Schooner Shark, Port Rodgers, Thompsons Island, 28 March 1822, to Smith Thompson, in Clarence Edwin Carter, ed. The territorial papers of the United States. Volume XXII. The territory of Florida 1821-1824 (Washington 1956) 388.

[3] “Telegraph,” Boston (Mass.) patriot & mercantile advertiser 14 February 1829 2:3; “The telegraph,” Key West (Fla.) register, and commercial advertiser (hereafter Key West register) 19 February 1829 2:4; “Telegraph,” Key West register 19 March 1829 2:3; Key West register 18 June 1829 3:1; “Marine telegraph,” Key West register 25 June 1829 2:3; “The telegraph,” Key West register 2 July 1829 2:3, 3:3. Cf. “To owners of vessels and shipmasters,” Key West register 2 July 1829 3:1. The Sand Key telegraph used James M. Elford’s system of signal flags, widely promoted by Boston merchant John Rowe Parker. See James Risk, “Seven flags over Charleston harbor: James M. Elford and the quest for a universal maritime signal code,” The South Carolina historical magazine 118:2 (April 2017) 132-154.

[4] Key West (Fla.) gazette 4 May 1831 2:2. For more about Rebbeca T. Flaherty and a description and drawing of Sand Key by Whitehead, see my earlier post Numbers to neighbors.

[5] Flaherty died at Sand Key 23 March 1830, aged 38, according to a notice in the Baltimore (Md.) patriot & mercantile advertiser 25 March 1830 2:6. Benjamin B. Strobel’s 1831 “Proposals for publishing the Key West Gazette” included establishing a marine telegraph on Sand Key “should sufficient patronage be offered.” Key West gazette 21/28 March 1831 2:1. See, however, “To shipmasters and owners of vessels,” Key West gazette 21/28 March 1831 4:5.  A telegraph service was operational no later than 1835: “To masters of vessels,” The enquirer (Key West, Fla.) 13 June 1835 3:1; The enquirer 26 September 1835 3:1.

[6] Key West gazette 4 May 1831 2:1.

[7] R. Fitzpatrick, “To the Editor of the Enquirer,” The enquirer 6 December 1834 3:1; The enquirer 29 August 1835 3:1.

[8] E. J. Hume, “Substance of the replies made by Superintendents of Light-houses to the Fifth Auditor’s Circular of April 16th, 1835, concerning the Light-house Establishment,” Light-house establishment. Letter from the Secretary of the Treasury, January 15, 1836, 24th Congress, 1st Session (H. Doc. No. 66, Serial Set 288) (hereafter “Substance of the replies”) 13.

[9] W. A. W[hitehead], Memorandums of peregrinations by land & water recorded for my own amusement, vol. 2nd, Key West Art & Historical Society, 88-89; Key West gazette 23 November 1831 2:2; “Extract from Ship Florence’s Log Book,” Key West gazette 7 December 1831 2:2; Key West gazette 21 December 1831 2:3; Key West gazette 21 December 1831 2:3.

[10] Key West gazette 26 October 1831 2:4, 3:2; 2 November 1831 1:2-4.

[11] “Substance of the replies” 11-14. For Whitehead’s meteorological activities on Key West, see the earlier post No enemy but winter and rough weather.

[12] “Misrepresentation. Florida wreckers,” The enquirer 5 December 1835 3:2.

Images: 1) Dry Tortugas light: Inside Fort Jefferson. Floyd and Marion Rinhart Photograph Collection. Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Miami Libraries, Coral Gables, Florida.  2) Key West light and Whitehead’s Point: Detail from “Key-West. Looking south-east. Reduced from a pencil sketch by W. A. Whitehead taken from the cupola of the warehouse of Messrs. A. C. Tift & Co., June 1838.” Lithograph published in Walter C. Maloney, A sketch of the history of Key West, Florida (Newark, N.J. 1876). Courtesy of P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida. 3) “Proposals…” The enquirer (Key West, Fla.) 17 October 1835 2:4.

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