|Fowey Rocks, FL|
Description: In 1978, Jerald J. Kline, a sport diver, “discovered” what he believed was a sunken Spanish galleon in the waters of Biscayne National Monument and soon commenced salvage operations thereon. After the Park Service became aware of his activities, the fight for ownership of the wreck and associated artifacts ended up in court. Following a protracted legal battle, the wreck was awarded to the National Park Service whose archaeologists had foreknowledge of the site.
Even before the positive identification of the wreck, the loss of the H.M.S. Fowey in the area was widely known. In fact, the treacherous reef just north of the wreck had been christened Fowey Rocks in honor of the vessel, and in 1878 the Fowey Rocks Lighthouse had been placed atop the reef to prevent similar tragedies. The H.M.S. Fowey was an impressive fifth-rate man-of-war with a twenty-gun lower deck battery of 18-pounder cannons, and a twenty-two-gun upper deck battery of 9-pounder cannons. However, the vessel’s wooden hull was no match for the rocky teeth of Florida’s reef when it ran aground in 1748.
The Cape Florida Lighthouse was built at the southern end of Key Biscayne in 1825 to mark the northern end of the Florida reefs. After the construction of offshore lighthouses had been successfully demonstrated at several locations along the Florida Keys, the Lighthouse Board decided to replace the Cape Florida Lighthouse with one positioned directly on the reefs it was to mark. Accordingly, a circular area on Fowey Rocks with a radius of 235 ½ feet was deeded by the state of Florida to the federal government on January 6, 1875. A contract for the foundation was awarded to Paulding and Kemble of Cold Spring, New York, while the material for the superstructure was to be supplied by Pusey, Jones & Company of Wilmington, Delaware.
Solider Key, a small island four miles due east of the construction site, served as the project headquarters. From there, workers and materials were lightered to the reef, where the first task was to build a platform, which would rest twelve feet above the water on mangrove piles that were driven into the reef. Next, divers leveled off the reef before nine foundation piles, eight forming an octagon and one in the center, were passed through large disks and sunk eleven feet into the coral.
While the tower was being constructed on the foundation, the crew lived atop the wooden platform or on the incomplete lighthouse. During this time, the workers witnessed two dramatic demonstrations of why a lighthouse was needed on the reef. One evening, the men had a near-death experience when the steamer Arakanapka rammed the reef just a few yards from the tower. The remains of this misguided steamer can still be seen in the shallows northwest of the lighthouse. Several weeks later, a second vessel, the Carondelet paid an unannounced nocturnal visit to the construction site. The Carondelet was more fortunate than the Arakanapka, for after jettisoning the majority of its cargo, it was able to float off the reef.
When the Fowey Rocks Lighthouse was complete, Cape Florida Lighthouse was discontinued and keepers John and Simeon Frow were transferred from Cape Florida to Fowey Rocks, where they lit the lamps for the first time on June 15, 1878. John served as the head keeper, and his father, Simeon, as an assistant. One of Simeon’s two daughters married Robert H. Thompson, who would serve at Fowey Rocks with his father-in-law during 1879 and 1880.
The Frow’s had been aboard their new home for almost three months when hurricane season brought the new tower its first major test of structural integrity. As recorded by John Frow, the hurricane raged for three days loosening the glass panes in the lantern room and “allowing the rain into the lantern constantly.” Frow also wrote, “Eastern door of dwelling so strained one of the panels is almost off and starting to tear the other off.” The hurricane inflicted moderate damage to the tower, but one can only wonder what affect spending three days imprisoned in a metal hut surrounded by howling wind and raging seas had on the keepers.
The third participant in this ordeal was assistant keeper Jefferson Browne, who had just graduated from high school. Browne was overworked during the hurricane and subsequent cleanup and repair work, but later, he found ample time to study the law books he had brought along. After fifteen months of lighthouse service and personal law studies, Browne enrolled at the University of Iowa Law School. Two years later, he had completed his degree, passed the bar exams in both Iowa and Florida, and was elected attorney for Key West and Monroe County. Browne would eventually become the Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court, and can be seen swearing in Governor Sidney J. Catts in this video clip.
Ken Roper served as engineman and lightkeeper at Fowey Rocks from 1965 to 1967, during which time a fourteen-foot square dock was built adjacent to the tower. The coastguardsmen were forbidden to swim while on duty at the lighthouse. After seeing an 18-foot shark swim by the tower, Ken had to agree that this was a wise regulation. The Fowey Rocks Lighthouse received its power via an electrical line that ran to the University of Miami’s Sea Lab on Biscayne Bay. In case power ever failed, it was Ken’s responsibility to keep the backup generators in readiness.
“I dreaded the evening and mornings when I had to climb the spiral stairs to the top of the light to turn on or turn off the light,” recalls Ken. “I think I remember there were 77 steps round and round to get up there. In those days I could run that in a minute or so flat. The reason the switch was up there was so it could be verified that the light was working.”
On Ken’s days off, a captain would come by and take him fishing for king mackerel and lobster. With a monthly salary of $107, a bedroom with an ocean view, and a steady supply of mackerel steaks and lobster, life on Fowey Rocks wasn’t too bad.
The lighthouse was manned by faithful keepers until the Coast Guard removed its personnel from Fowey Rocks in 1974, following automation of the light. A decade later, the first-order Fresnel lens was removed and placed on display at the Coast Guard’s National Aids to Navigation School in Yorktown, VA. Red panels have been added to the lantern room to warn mariners of the reefs located north and south of the tower.
On October 2, 2012, Fowey Rocks Lighthouse was transferred from the Coast Guard to Biscayne National Park under the authority of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act (NHLPA) of 2000. Due to the location of the lighthouse within the park, the National Park Service exercised its option under NHLPA to request a direct transfer.
Although the Fowey Rocks Lighthouse must occasionally endure the buffeting of a hurricane, and, sadly, the attacks of vandals, with the tower now standing in the protected waters of Biscayne National Park, its future should be secure.
Located 6.5 miles southeast of the southern end of Key Biscayne. The lighthouse is owned by the National Park Service. Tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the National Park Service. Tower closed.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
Between the Fowey Rocks and Carysfort Reef Lighthouses are found a couple of lights, accessible by boat or plane, that don't rise to the level of an official lighthouse. Mark Honeywell, the Honeywell Corporation tycoon, owned Boca Chita Key from 1937 to 1945 and during that time built the Boca Chita Lighthouse on the island using coral rock. Honeywell reportedly activated the lighthouse for just a brief period before officials ordered the unauthorized light extinguished. Boca Chita Key is now part of Biscayne National Park. Roughly ten miles southwest of Boca Chita Key, stands Pacific Reef Light, which is an official light. The original structure, built in 1921, was outfitted with a lantern room that was later removed and placed on display at Founders Park in Islamorada. In 2000, the original structure was replaced with the present tower.
See our List of Lighthouses in Florida
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, Ken Roper, used by permission.