The Key West lighthouse is one of the most popular attractions in Old Town, located right next to the Ernest Hemingway home and museum. It’s a National Historic Landmark and climbing to the top is one of the most memorable experiences in Key West.
At the Key West Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters Museum, you can grab panoramic views of Mallory Square–and the rest of the island. Plus, you can get a glimpse of what life was like for those that kept this important aid to navigation burning brightly for decades. The lighthouse in Key West remained in use until the late 1960s, when the site was transferred to the local historical society.
History of the Key West Lighthouse
In the year 1822, the birth year of Key West, Commodore Matthew C. Perry upon the completion of his surveys of the Straits of Florida, recommended to congress that a series of four lighthouses be built along the reef. These lights were later to be known as Cape Florida Light, Key Largo, Sambo Keys, and Dry Tortugas.
Originally the Key West Lighthouse was proposed to be built about seven miles offshore on a sandbar that is now called the Sambos. When it was determined that the Sambos were not suitable for a lighthouse, being as they were partially submerged, the decision was made to build it on the island of Key West.
Throughout its 144 years of service, the lighthouse experienced many different disasters and advancements. The Key West lighthouse that stands today is not the original lighthouse; but rather the replacement to the first lighthouse that was destroyed by the Great Havana Hurricane of 1846.
The Original Key West Lighthouse
Hurricane season brings a humbling reminder that, despite our technologies, most of nature remains unpredictable.Dianne Ackerman
On January 13, 1826, the original Key West Lighthouse was completed; its 15 whale oil lamps and reflectors were lit for the first time. The conical brick lighthouse stood 65 feet above sea level on Whitehead’s Point, which at the time, was the southernmost point of the island.
When the Great Havana Hurricane of 1846 passed through the Florida Keys, the damage was immense. The storm severely damaged or destroyed all but eight of the 600 structures on the island including the lighthouse. Many sought refuge in the lighthouse which was thought to stand strong as it had weathered many storms over the prior 20 years.
As the storm surge increased to more than five feet and the surf began breaking on the structure, it grew weak. Eventually, the lighthouse fell, taking 14 victims–including six of the lighthouse keeper’s children.
The Current Key West Lighthouse
In 1848 the new Key West Lighthouse was lit. This 50-foot tower was relocated half a mile inland to its current location at the corner of Whitehead Street and Truman Avenue (adjacent to the Ernest Hemingway house in Old Town). The lighthouse was constructed on ground that was 15 feet above sea level, making this new lighthouse the same level as the original structure.
The 13 lamps and 21 reflectors were lit on January 15, 1848, but were only used for a few short years. In the 1850s, with the adoption of Fresnel lenses, the U.S. Lighthouse Board began planning the updates to allow the light to shine brighter and farther than before.
The lamp at this site remained lit until 1969, when, thanks to advances in technology, the Coast Guard deemed the guiding light was no longer needed. In the late 60s, Monroe County provided the site to the Key West Art and Historical Society to operate as a museum.
Key West Lighthouse Upgrades and Advancements Over the Years
The Lighthouse received numerous upgrades over the years, and in 1858 a third-order Fresnel lens was shipped from Paris, France, and installed where it sits today. These newly developed Fresnel lenses drastically improved the visibility of the light. The power of these lenses comes from the hundreds of glass prisms that can increase the distance at which the light could be seen.
Over its many years of operation, the lighthouse grew from its original 65 feet to its current height of 90 1/2 feet. These modifications were required to ensure that the safe passage of ships remained.
- 1872 – Five feet were added for the new lantern room
- 1858 – Third-order Fresnel Lens was installed, and lamps were converted to lard oil
- 1891 – Lantern was converted to kerosene fuel
- 1894 – The now mature trees which surrounded the lighthouse had blocked the light. The lighthouse height was ordered to be increased, and a balcony was added.
- 1908 – Lighting was converted to incandescent oil vapor.
- 1915 – Lighthouse converted acetylene and automated flashing sequence. This made the position of lighthouse keeper obsolete.
- 1933 – The light was electrified and automated.
The Lighthouse Keepers and Their Quarters
In 1826, upon its opening, the first Key West lighthouse keeper was Michael Mabrity. His wife Barbara Mabrity served as Assistant Keeper. Just six years after taking the position, Michael succumbed to yellow fever, leaving Barbara to tend the lighthouse for the next 32 years. In this time period, it was unusual for a head keeper to be a woman, but Barbara carried out the duties of keeping the lamp lit well into her eighties.
Lighthouse Keeper’s Quarters Museum
In 1887, the current lighthouse keeper’s quarters were built to house two lighthouse keepers and their families. Each family had their own entrance to the keeper’s quarters, however, the parlor, kitchen, and dining room were shared between the families.
This building now houses the keeper’s quarters museum, which has been restored to a time capsule of what it was at the time when manual light keeping existed.
List of the Keepers of the Key West Lighthouse
- Michael Mabrity (1826 – 1832)Assistant – Barbara Mabrity (1826-1832)
- Barbara Mabrity (1832 – 1864)Assistant – Robert Fletcher (1859 – 1862), John P. Hain (1862-1864)
- Frederic Anderson (1864 – 1865)Assistant – Robert Ranger (1864-1865)
- J. Ingraham (1865 – 1867)J.W. Ingraham, Jr. (1865-1867)
- Henry H. Crane (1867 – 1868)Assistant – Peter Crocker (1867)
- Peter Crocker (1868 – 1870)
- John J. Carroll (1870 – 1889)Assistant – George C. Meade (1871),George A. Allen (1871 – 1872), R.R. Fletcher (1872 – 1876), Mary Amanda Carroll (1876 – 1889)
- Mary Amanda Carroll (1889)Assistant – Henry Shannahan (1889 – 1890)
- William A. Bethel (1889 – 1908)Assistant – Mary E. Bethel (1891 – 1908)
- Mary E. Bethel (1908 – 1914).Assistant – Merrill A. Bethel (1908 – 1914).
The Lychee Tree
Located in the courtyard of the Key West lighthouse keeper’s quarters is something of an anomaly, a lychee tree. This tree is one of the only lychee trees on the island. It has been known to fruit only once but provides great shade to cool off and hide from the brutal summer sun.
The inside of the Keeper’s Quarters Museum is filled with a variety of different exhibits to explore. You will find a variety of artifacts dating back to the 1820s, as well as some great history about the building and grounds.
Sombrero Reef First Order Fresnel Lens
On display at the Lighthouse Keeper’s Quarters Museum is the first-order Fresnel lens from Sombrero Key lighthouse. This First Order, being the largest produced, stands at approximately five feet tall and weighs in at approximately 2,000 pounds.
Lighthouse Keepers Parlor
This beautifully kept room inside the quarters is home to the Bethel family quilt, a period-correct library, and Mary Bethel’s rocking chair. The parlor is arranged as if it were when the Bethel family kept watch over the lighthouse in the early 1900s.
Tours and Tickets to Experience Key West Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters Museum
As of today the Key West Art and Historical Society has undertaken the restoration and upkeep of the Key West Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters Museum. Visitors are welcome to come and visit the grounds as well as climb the 88 steps to the observation deck of the lighthouse.
Hours of operation are 10:00 am to 5:00 pm daily, but check the Key West Art and Historical Society website to confirm.
I highly recommend arriving early in the morning as the crowds mid-day can lead to a sort of traffic jam while climbing up the steps to the balcony.