|Sanibel Island, FL|
Description: Much of Florida’s southwestern coast is shadowed by a string of barrier islands. While most of these slender islands run in a general north-south direction, crescent-shaped Sanibel Island is positioned in more of an east-west direction. The Gulf current here sweeps up the coast from the south, and Sanibel Island, positioned sideways to the flow, scoops up an abundant supply of seashells. Numerous collectors flock to the island, now known worldwide for its shelling, and comb the beaches, hunched over in what is called the "Sanibel Stoop," looking for the perfect shell.
Punta Rassa, located on the mainland across San Carlos Bay from the eastern end of Sanibel Island, soon thereafter became a substantial port as cattle were driven to its docks from across Florida to be loaded onto vessels and transported to Cuba. In 1856, the Lighthouse Board recommended a beacon be established on Sanibel Island to light the port, but no action was taken. After the Civil War, another request for funding for the lighthouse was made in 1878, accompanied by the following justification:
A light on Sanabel Island would supply a want that has long been felt for a light-house between Key West and Egmont Key. The coastwise trade of Florida is considerable, and increasing. A great number of sailing-vessels, also six steamers, are now plying between Key West and ports on the west coast of Florida; and vessels bound across Florida Bay make their landfall at and take their departure from the southern point of Sanabel Island.Congress was slow in granting sufficient funds for the project, but all of the needed $50,000 was finally obtained in 1883.
Work on the lighthouse began on the eastern tip of the island in February 1884, while the superstructure was fabricated in the north and shipped to the site. A 162-foot-long wharf was built on creosoted piles, allowing materials to be landed for the tower and for two square keeper’s dwellings, topped by hipped roofs and supported by iron pilings. Just two miles from Sanibel Island, the ship carrying the lighthouse material for both Sanibel and Cape San Blas sank. Crews aboard the lighthouse tenders Arbutus and Mignonette, assisted by a diver, were able to recover almost all of the pieces, and the lighthouse, consisting of four iron legs arranged in a pyramidal fashion around a cylindrical central column, was ready to be lit by keeper Dudley Richardson on August 20, 1884. A third-order Fresnel lens graced the tower at a height of about ninety-eight feet. Just like its twin at Cape San Blas, the central column of Sanibel Island Lighthouse stops about twenty feet from the ground and must be accessed by an external staircase.
Accompanied by his wife and two sons, Henry Shanahan moved to Sanibel Island from Key West in 1888, and two years later became the assistant keeper at the lighthouse. When Keeper Richardson resigned in 1892, Shanahan applied for the position. At first, lighthouse authorities refused to promote him to head keeper since he was illiterate.
Needless to say, the family helped run the lighthouse. The Shanahans had a pet deer that would race up and down the beach along with a trained cat that would roll over like a dog. After Henry passed away in 1913, his son Eugene later became keeper of the lighthouse, and Clarence Rutland, one of Henry Shanahan’s stepsons, served as an assistant keeper from 1918 through 1926 and again from 1936 through 1941. Rutland gave the following description of the daily routine at the lighthouse:
There were two men at the time. We changed watch each night at 12. It was an oil light then, and we'd take a five-gallon can up full in the afternoon and pump the light and bring the can down empty in the morning.
In 1923, the dwellings were modernized, receiving indoor plumbing and bathrooms, and enclosed porches. That same year, the light was converted from kerosene to acetylene gas. Roughly 670 acres were originally reserved for the lighthouse, but by 1923 the boundary of the station property only extended 1,000 feet west of the lighthouse.
Coast Guardsman Bob England came to the lighthouse in 1946 with his wife and infant daughter. The following year, a hurricane caused severe erosion on the island, and left one of the dwellings standing in a foot of water. Due in part to concerns over erosion, the lighthouse was automated in 1949. The dwellings were not long empty, as that same year they became home to employees of the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Charles LeBuff lived in the assistant keeper's cottage for twenty-one years, starting in 1958.
The Coast Guard electrified Sanibel Island Lighthouse in 1962 when the causeway was completed and electric conduit pipes were run along it for the island. In the process of electrifying the light, the Coast Guard removed the tower's third-order Fresnel lens and installed a 300 millimeter drum lens that had been used on a lightship. A 190 millimeter beacon was placed in the lantern room in the 1980s, and the 300 millimeter lens was loaned to the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village, where it is currently on display.
In 1972, the Coast Guard proposed discontinuing the lighthouse, but feedback provided by local residents and mariners convinced them to keep it lit. The City of Sanibel assumed management of the lighthouse property, except the tower, in 1982, and city personnel were allowed to live in the dwellings rent-free in exchange for helping to maintain and supervise the grounds.
The property was transferred from the Coast Guard to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 2000. The BLM accepted an application from the City of Sanibel for custody of the property in 2004, and after a lengthy delay, the lighthouse was officially transferred to the city during a ceremony held April 21, 2010. Using a $50,000 state historic preservation grant and money from its beach parking fund, Sanibel City Council awarded a $269,563 contract to Razorback LLC in May 2013 to restored the lighthouse. During the summer of 2013, the contractors replaced sections of deteriorated steel on the tower and then sanded and painted the exterior. The City of Sanibel has certainly shown it is committed to preserving the lighthouse property.
Head Keepers: Dudley Richardson (1884 – 1892), Henry Shanahan (1892 – 1913), Charles Henry Williams (1913 – 1923), Eugene Shanahan (1924 – 1926), William Demere (1926 – 1932), Roscoe McLane (1932 – 1935), Richard J. Palmer (1935 – 1946), William Robert England (1946 – 1949).
Located on the eastern tip of Sanibel Island, offshore from Fort Myers. The lighthouse is owned by the City of Sanibel. Grounds open, tower/dwellings closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the City of Sanibel. Grounds open, tower/dwellings closed.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
This "Sanibel Stoop" thing isn't just a catchy phrase; it is for real. During a visit to the island early on a Sunday morning in 2006, we encountered dozens of people patrolling the beach looking for the perfect seashell, and yes, a lot of the time they are bent over at the waist. One guy with a netted sack, apparently made for shell collecting, waded about ten yards offshore and seemed to be having the most success, judging by the fullness of his sack. I was dying to join in the fun, but unfortunately I was attired for church, and soon had to leave for that other form of worship.
See our List of Lighthouses in Florida
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.