|Carysfort Reef, FL|
Description: A giant river, hidden in the Atlantic Ocean, sweeps up along much of the eastern coast of the United States before bending east to Europe. This river, the Gulf Stream, originates in the Gulf of Mexico, rushes through the Straits of Florida, and then turns north along the Florida Keys. Ships traveling from the Gulf to the Atlantic Seaboard use the current to aid their progress. Vessels running in the opposite direction often hug the reefs along portions of the Keys to avoid the Gulf Stream and to pick up a slight southerly coastal current.
Sailing so close to a reef, however, can prove dangerous, and this is especially true at Carysfort Reef, which lies six miles off Key Largo. Carysfort Reef is named for one of its earliest victims, the twenty-eight-gun frigate HMS Carysfort, which ran aground in 1770. Since that time, the reef has claimed many other ships as evidenced by the numerous wrecks noted on nautical charts of the area. Between 1833 and 1841, of the 324 vessels recorded as lost on the Florida Reefs, sixty-three, roughly twenty percent, were lost on Carysfort Reef. Given its history, it is not surprising that Carysfort Reef is home to Florida's oldest reef lighthouse.
Carysfort Reef Lighthouse, however, was not the first navigational aid to mark the reef. That honor would fall to a lightship, for which Congress provided $20,000 in 1824. A year later, the vessel, christened Caesar, set sail from New York for the Keys. Off Key Biscayne, a fierce storm blew the ship onto the reefs. Wreckers came to the rescue, freed the ship, and towed it to Key West, where a handsome salvage award had to be paid to regain possession of the lightship. After just five years of service on the reef, Caesar was found to have so much dry-rot in her timbers that Congress was forced to cough up another $20,000 in 1830 for a replacement vessel. Caesar thus became the shortest-lived lightship in Lighthouse Service history. Given the vessel’s name, perhaps it was not too surprising that its life came to a premature end.
The second lightship for Carysfort Reef, the Florida, fared much better than its predecessor, but the same cannot be said of its crew. John Whalton had served as keeper of the lightship Caesar and continued in that capacity aboard the Florida. Whalton’s family was visiting aboard the lightship when, on June 26, 1837, Whalton and four crewmen rowed ashore to Key Largo, where the crew maintained a garden to supplement their rations. The following report, given by a member of the crew, details the results of a surprise encounter with Seminole Indians that happened shortly after landing:
Capt. Whalton and one of his men were shot dead – the other three made their escape, two of which were wounded, one on the left side, the other in the arm. The Indians, after taking scalps, stripping the bodies entirely naked and stabbing them in several places, even cutting off Capt. Whalton’s finger to get his ring, retreated to the bush. The wreckers, or several of them, deserve much credit. In the afternoon of the same day they resolved to go on shore at the risk of their own lives to get the bodies, and Capt. Cold of the Schooner Pee Dee, Capt. English onboard the sloop Brilliant with their crews, ventured and got the remains.Interestingly, the Schooner Pee Dee had also provided assistance after Seminole Indians attacked Cape Florida Lighthouse the previous summer.
Congress provided $20,000 in 1837 and another $40,000 the following year for a lighthouse to replace the lightship on Carysfort Reef. I.W.P. Lewis was dispatched to determine the feasibility of erecting a permanent lighthouse on the reef and found three acceptable sites. For some reason, however, the funds for the project reverted to the treasury in 1840, and Congress didn't make the first in a series of appropriations for a lighthouse to replace the Lightship Florida until 1847. Winslow Lewis proposed a masonry tower, but a screwpile design submitted by his nephew I.W.P. Lewis was selected instead. The wrought-iron parts for the tower were forged in Philadelphia, and then shipped to the Keys. Captain Howard Stansbury of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers was responsible for erecting the tower. Stansbury expected the coral reef to be solid, but test borings revealed that underneath a solid crust was a softer mass of sand. Fearing that the soft sand would not support the weight of the tower, Stansbury passed each foundation pile through the center of a large cast-iron disk. The piles were then sunk into the sand until collars, attached to the upper portion of the piles, rested on the disks atop the coral. In this manner, the weight of the tower was transferred over a large area of the coral. Before Stansbury could finish the tower above his innovative foundation, construction funds were depleted.
… composed of a framework of 9 iron piles, occupying the center and angular point of an octagon of 50 feet diameter and taper from 50 feet at the base to 19 feet at the top. The dwelling house is the frustum of a cone, the sides having the same inclination as the Piles. The floor is 33 feet above the low water, and the house of two stories is 20 feet high. From the top of the house to the Lantern is a Cylindrical Tower for a stairway 38 feet high. The whole structure is painted Red – except the Piles which are Black – and the doors and windows of the dwelling and roof of the Lantern which are white.The lighthouse was originally outfitted with eighteen lamps set in twenty-one-inch reflectors. In 1855, just three years later, the array of lamps was replaced by a first-order Fresnel lens manufactured by Henry-Lepaute and purchased for $22,000. The characteristic of the light was changed from fixed white to a white flash every thirty seconds on March 17, 1858, when the new lighthouse on Sombrero Key was activated. On April 30, 1893, three red sectors were added to the light.
On the morning of September 6, 1919, Keeper William H. Curry departed Key West for the 110-mile return voyage back to Carysfort Reef, after having picked up supplies and official mail. On the night of September 8, Curry anchored in Boot Key Harbor, five miles north of Sombrero Key Lighthouse, as a hurricane was passing through the area. No further sign of the keeper was seen until his capsized craft was located several days later about twenty-five miles north of where he had anchored. It is presumed that during the night of September 8, the keeper's boat was driven into an arch in the Florida East Coast Bridge and overturned, leading to the drowning of the keeper.
In the 1920s, the Lighthouse Service modified the lights along the Florida reefs so that the number of flashes in their characteristics corresponded to the order in which mariners encountered the lights. For example, Hillsboro Lighthouse, the first light along the reefs, exhibited a single flash every ten second, while Fowey Rocks, the second light, exhibited two flashes every ten seconds. Every fourth bull's-eye panel in the first-order lens at Carysfort Reef was replaced by a metal screen so that its characteristic became three flashes every twenty seconds, indicating that it was the third light along the reefs. The lens at Alligator reef was modified to produce a group of four white flashes every fifteen seconds, and a revolving screen was placed inside the fixed lens at Sombrero Key to produce a group of five white flashes every fifteen seconds.
As counting more than five flashes could be difficult during storms, the number was reset at American Shoal Lighthouse. It thus produced a white flash every five seconds, while Sand Key produced a group of two flashes every ten seconds. Rebecca Shoal Lighthouse sent out three white flashes every fifteen seconds.
A local man by the name of Charles Brookfield often fished near the lighthouse. On one excursion to Carysfort Reef, he took along some newspapers, magazines, and fresh meat and vegetables for the keepers. In return, he was invited to spend the night at the lighthouse. Brookfield recalled that he was just starting to dose off “when a loud groan shook the room and startled me awake. I sat up thinking it may have been a dream. Then another groan came and I knew it was real.” Brookfield grabbed a flashlight and climbed up to the lantern room to question the keeper about the strange noises. Keeper Jenks replied, “That’s old Captain Johnson. You know, he died aboard this light, and he still comes around at night and groans.” After giving it some serious thought, Brookfield came up with his own theory for the groans. He deduced that during hot days the metal tower expanded, and then as it contracted during the cooler nights, it would produce the human-like groans.
Typically, the Keys don’t experience that wide of a temperature swing, so perhaps the tower really is haunted. Regardless, the last living occupants of the tower left in 1962, when the Coast Guard automated the light. At that time, the first-order lens was replaced by a fixed, third-order lens. The third-order lens was removed in 1982, when a modern beacon was placed in the tower. There was a plan to convert the lighthouse into a marine research center, but as of 2004, the lighthouse remains unoccupied.
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, offshore from the northern end of
Largo Key. Florida Keys Reef Lights Foundation offers a trip to a couple of the reef lights each December. Check their Events page for more information.
The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Tower closed.
Florida Keys Reef Lights Foundation offers a trip to a couple of the reef lights each December. Check their Events page for more information.
The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Tower closed.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
This is the only lighthouse I have flown over and swam under, and the views from both vantage points are spectacular. From the air, the red tower with its white trimmings stands out against the aquamarine waters and dark reefs. Under the tower, I was greeted by a school of menacing looking barracudas, along with brightly colored parrot fish and several other species that this novice snorkeler couldn't identify. The area under the tower is littered with cables and iron that have either fallen off the lighthouse or were discarded into the sea.
See our List of Lighthouses in Florida
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.