Lighthouse Friends Home Page
 Key Largo, FL    
Privately owned, no access without permission.
Description: Thanks to the interest in and research by the current owners of the lighthouse, David and Mariana McGraw, and work done by historians Thomas W. Taylor and Jerry Wilkinson, the history of this interesting lighthouse can now finally be pieced together. Part of the two-acre Key Largo Lighthouse and Marina property in the Florida Keys, this lighthouse has far more significance than your typical faux lighthouse, for it incorporates the only known surviving piece of the famous but long-gone Rebecca Shoal Lighthouse.

Rebecca Shoal Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The first attempt to mark Rebecca Shoal was in the 1850s, when Lt. George G. Meade examined the shoal in 1853 and then prepared and submitted plans for a day beacon later that year. The Lighthouse Board sanctioned the work on January 10, 1854, and the necessary materials were shipped to Key West in May of that year. Due to a failure to procure mangrove piles for the platform and the lack of sufficient funds to complete the project, erection of the beacon had to be postponed until 1855.

Work at the site commenced during the last week of April in 1855, and three weeks later, the platform, built on trestles, was nearly completed, when a violent gale forced the work party to seek refuge at Dry Tortugas. When they returned three days later, there was no trace of the platform. After new materials were obtained, work on a second platform began, but it was lost when the trestle foundation settled unevenly in the sand. The seabed, which was thought to have been mainly coral, turned out to be quite sandy, and it was determined that piles would have to be driven. A pile driver was set up on the deck of a vessel, but after waiting three weeks in the vicinity of the shoal for calm seas, the eight-month term of service to which the work party was committed expired, and they could not be persuaded to remain on site.

Another work party was assembled and taken out to the shoal in early August, but after six weeks of rough weather, they were unable to initiate the work, and the project was abandoned for the season. George Mead summarized the status of the work for the Lighthouse Board.

In reporting this failure, which no one can regret more than myself, I feel it proper to observe, 1st, that this result was not unlooked for; indeed, in my special report, submitting a design, it was distinctly alluded to as extremely probable. I believed then, and am satisfied now, that no light-house structure of any kind has been erected, either in this country or in Europe, at a position more exposed and offering greater obstacles than the Rebecca shoal. 2d. Notwithstanding the want of success attending the attempt here reported, I feel confident that everything was done that existing circumstances permitted, and the failure is to be attributed entirely to the unfavorable character of the season.

A day beacon was finally erected on Rebecca Shoal, but in 1883 the Lighthouse Board requested funds for a light to illuminate the dark space between the lights at Sand Key and Dry Tortugas. “The establishment of this light,” the Board wrote, “will complete the plan for the proper lighting of these reefs, which was formulated by the preliminary commission of 1851, and which has been kept steadily in view by the Light-House Board. Its importance is shown by the number of wrecks which have taken place in this unlighted space, and by the large number of vessels constantly passing in this vicinity. The district engineer estimates that a proper structure superimposed upon the 12-inch wrought-iron piles now upholding Rebecca Shoal day-beacon, with perhaps other piles added, will cost but $20,000; this, however, is doubted by some members of the Board, but $20,000 is all that is asked for expenditure on this work during the coming year.”

Key Largo Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy David and Mariana McGraw
The ironwork for the lighthouse was delivered to Key West in 1885, and the superstructure was framed and stored at the same place until the spring of 1886, when work began on the shoal. Divers had to move large rocks so that iron disks for supporting the lighthouse could be properly placed on the seafloor. The one-and-a-half-story wooden lighthouse, with a hipped roof interrupted by dormer windows and topped by the lantern room, commenced operation on November 1, 1886, showing alternately red and white flashes. In 1893, a red sector was introduced so that only red flashes were shown over a portion of the light’s arc of visibility.

In 1918, Professor S.C. Ball spent a month at the lighthouse, which was twelve miles from Key West, the nearest land, and found that winds would bring mosquitoes to the lighthouse from as far away as Cuba, ninety-five miles to the south.

On August 1, 1925, Rebecca Shoal Lighthouse was automated through the installation of an acetylene gas system, and keepers no longer had to risk their lives living at the remote station. Deterioration and vandalism gradually took their toll on the structure. In 1953, the house was removed, and the iron lantern was taken down and sold for scrap. Somehow, it survived and eventually found its way to a scrap iron dealer in Ocala, Florida.

In 1959, a previous owner of the Key Largo Lighthouse and Marina property was interested in building a lighthouse at the end of his property where a canal enters the Atlantic Ocean. Having heard about the original Rebecca Shoal Lighthouse lantern, which was being offered for sale by the junk dealer in Ocala, Florida, he sent a crew to Ocala to recover the lantern and bring it down to Key Largo for installation on the top of his new lighthouse. Contactor Ralph Smith, who was in the process of also building the surrounding subdivision at that time, built the concrete base and tower of the lighthouse.

By the time the McGraws purchased the property in 2001, the lighthouse had badly deteriorated. David McGraw, however, was fascinated by the old lighthouse and wisely decided to restore it. Today, the lighthouse, painted with a white and red checkerboard daymark, and its historic lantern are in excellent condition. McGraw set up two guest rooms and a restroom inside the strcuture for people who might like to stay in a lighthouse while visiting. These guests would truly be amazed if that original lantern could tell of the adventures it saw during a period of sixty-seven years atop Rebecca Shoal Lighthouse.

The McGraws’ Key Largo Lighthouse and Marina property is available as a vacation rental and as a site for weddings or other events.

Rebecca Shoal Head Keepers: Mark Gaze (1886 – 1888), James Gardner (1888 – 1889), Francis McNulty (1889 – 1890), Robert J. Fine (1890 – 1893), John Watkins (1893 – 1895), William R. Cook (1895 – 1896), Charles H. Gardner (1896 – 1900), James R. Walker (1900 – 1902), Alfred A. Berghell (1902 – 1905), Arthur C.E. Hamblett (1905 – 1907), John Peterson (1907 – 1908), Arthur C.E. Hamblett (1908 – 1910), Thomas M. Kelly (1910 – 1917), Clifton H. Lopez (1917), William Pierce (1917 – 1919), Richard C. Roberts (1919), Thomas L. Kelly (1919 - ), Alonzo Baker ( – 1925).

References

  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. "Mystery of the Lighthouse at Key Largo," Lighthouse Digest, June, 2004.
  3. Information and pictures supplied by David and Mariana McGraw.

Location: Located on Key Largo.
Latitude: 25.087163
Longitude: -80.43429

For a larger map of Key Largo Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: From Highway 1 in Key Largo, go south on South Ocean Bay Drive and then turn left onto Seagate Boulevard. Just before the end of Seagate, turn right onto Beach Road. A view of the lighthouse, located across a channel, was possible in 2010 from a vacant lot on Beach Road. This view will likely no longer be possible after construction on the lot is completed.

The lighthouse is privately owned but is available as a vacation rental property and as a site for weddings or other events Grounds/tower closed.

Find the closest hotels to Key Largo Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
There is a "lighthouse" located off Key Largo known as Molasses Reef Lighthouse. This structure was never manned but did display a light to warn mariners away from the dangerous reef. You can view the tower aboard a glass bottom boat ride out of John Pennecamp Coral Reef State Park (located at mile marker 102.5 in Key Largo).

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