Congress allocated funds for the lights, and on August 29, 1824, Samuel B. Lincoln, who had helped secure the contract for the lighthouses, left Boston for Florida aboard a vessel carrying a portion of the necessary construction material. When Lincoln failed to arrive in Florida after several months, it was finally concluded that the ship and all aboard had been lost at sea.
Though this tragedy delayed construction of the lighthouses, another vessel, the schooner George Stodder, was soon dispatched for Key West to facilitate the construction of the lighthouse on the Sambo Keys. After the ship arrived at Key West on December 12, Commodore Porter and William Pinkney, collector of customs, were consulted to select a suitable construction site on the Sambo Keys, located some seven miles offshore from Key West. Knowing that the small islands were at times completely inundated, it was decided that the lighthouse should be built instead at Whitehead’s Point, the southernmost point on Key West.
The conical tower was built of brick and measured sixty-five feet from its foundation to the base of its lantern, which had been manufactured in the north. A collection of fifteen lamps fueled by whale oil served as the tower’s light source, and Keeper Michael Mabrity first touched flame to wick at the light on January 13, 1826. Mabrity’s wife, Barbara, was appointed assistant keeper, and together the couple started what would become a lighthouse dynasty. The Mabritys were active in the community, with Michael serving on the town council and even moving his family closer to the center of Key West, after hiring a man to live in the keeper’s quarters and look after the light. This subcontracting was frowned upon by the Treasury Department and Mabrity was ordered back to the lighthouse. His annual salary was subsequently raised from $400 to $600, perhaps as an enticement to remain at his post.
In 1832, Michael succumbed to yellow fever, a common disease in the tropical clime, and Barbara was made head keeper. Alone, Barbara took care of Key West Lighthouse and her six children, weathering powerful hurricanes in 1835, 1841, and 1842. In 1843, a group of concerned citizens of Key West wrote the following to Stephen Pleasonton, head of U.S. lighthouse operations:
Mrs. Mabrity, the keeper of the light upon this island, has for a number of years performed the duties of her office with fidelity, and to the satisfaction … of the Collector and of Navigators; that she has practiced and still practices rigid economy in her mode of living and yet she has not been able to accumulate any property to support her in her old age; that she is now becoming considerably advanced in her age; that she is less able to perform the labor and endure the fatigue of her office than she has been, and that in our opinion a just appreciation of her past services, and her present situation give her an equitable claim upon the government for assistance.
October 10, 1846 was a stifling day in Key West. Hardly a whisper of wind blew, but by late afternoon erratic waves started to strike the shore near the lighthouse. As the lamps were lit that night, dark clouds were gathering in the west and the barometer started a precipitous fall. By morning, it was obvious to everyone that another hurricane was bearing down on Key West. The storm surge accompanying the event covered Key West in five feet of water, and all but eight of the roughly 600 homes on the island were severely damaged or destroyed. Fourteen people who sought refuge at the lighthouse died as the tower collapsed in the surf. Somehow, Barbara Mabrity survived the storm, though some of her family perished.
A temporary beacon, a tripod supporting a signal lantern at a height of thirty feet, was built near the site of the former lighthouse and remained in operation until a replacement tower was built. On March 3, 1847, Congress provided $12,000 for the new lighthouse, which would be constructed a half-mile inland. Work began the following November, and the lighthouse was completed by January 15, 1848, at a cost of $7,247.77. The new tower stood fifty feet tall, fifteen feet shorter than its predecessor, but its position atop one of Key West’s “hills” (fourteen feet above sea level) about made up for the difference.
Deeply saddened but undaunted, Mrs. Mabrity resumed her familiar routine at the new tower and moved into the nearby wooden keeper’s dwelling when it was completed in 1849. In the 1850s, the U.S. Lighthouse Board started using Fresnel lenses, which were developed in France and were far superior to the lamp and reflector system. A third-order Fresnel lens, recently arrived from Paris, was placed in Key West Lighthouse in 1858, where it remains to this day.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Captain James M. Brannan secured Fort Zachary Taylor on Whitehead’s Point for the Federal Government. Although Key West residents were more sympathetic to the Confederate cause, the island remained under federal control throughout the war. It seems Mrs. Mabrity may have been a bit vocal about where her loyalties lay as she was urged to retire in 1864 for being disloyal to the Union. Still feisty at the age of eighty-two, she refused to step down, and so was officially fired after thirty-eight years of service. She passed away three years later, but her family’s connection to Key West Lighthouse didn’t end there.
The Mabritys’ granddaughter, Mary Armanda Fletcher, married John J. Carroll, who in 1868 was appointed assistant keeper and then promoted to head keeper of Key West Lighthouse in 1870. Mary served as assistant from 1876 to March 14, 1889, when her husband died of typhoid. Mary was promoted to keeper, a position she held for just a few weeks before she too succumbed to the disease on May 21, 1889.
Nicolosa, the Mabritys’ own daughter, married Captain Joseph Bethel in 1831, and together they served at the lighthouses on Garden Key and Sombrero Key. After having served at Alligator Reef, Dry Tortugas, Pensacola, and Northwest Passage, their son, William A. Bethel, replaced his cousin, Mary Carroll, as keeper of Key West Lighthouse and served in this capacity from 1889 to 1908. Upon William’s death, his wife, Mary Elizabeth was promoted from assistant to head keeper and served in this role until 1915, with her son Merrill as assistant. The Mabrity dynasty thus spanned over eighty-five years at Key West Lighthouse.
In 1887, the present keepers’ dwelling was completed to replace the first keeper’s quarters at the new site. Designed to house two keepers and their families, the spacious building provided a separate room and entrance for each family, though they did share a common parlor, dining room, and kitchen.
As a hurricane approached the station in 1907, Keeper William Bethel climbed atop the dwelling to clear the rain gutters, so that the water collected in the cistern would be as clean as possible. Tragically, Bethel fell from the pitched roof, injuring his back and confining him to bed for several months. When another hurricane struck the following year, Bethel insisted on leaving his bed to check on the light, even though his family assured him it was still burning. Six months later, William passed away, and his wife took charge of the light.
Key West Lighthouse was converted from incandescent oil vapor to acetylene in 1915, and the constant care of a keeper was no longer required. The lighthouse was soon automated, but the dwelling was not vacant for long, as in 1917 William Demeritt, the lighthouse superintendent for southern Florida, recommended that he and his family be allowed to live in the dwelling so “that the lighthouse property be under observation at all times during the war due to storage of kerosene in the oil house.” With his foot in the door, Demeritt found no need to leave after the war and remained in the dwelling until the Coast Guard took control of the lighthouse in 1939.
In 1966, the Key West Art and Historical Society was granted control of the dwelling, and turned it and the grounds into a military museum, complete with aircraft, large guns, and a Japanese midget submarine. The lighthouse was deactivated in 1969, and the society was allowed to open the tower for tours. In 1987, a $265,000 renovation started on the tower, and scores of eroded bricks in the 1894 extension were replaced with period bricks salvaged from a cistern at Fort Zachary Taylor.
Using money from a variety of sources, including some from the 1989 Bicentennial Lighthouse Fund, the 1887 keepers’ quarters were restored next, and in 1990 the dwelling was opened as a lighthouse museum. The military paraphernalia was removed from the grounds in 1988, and the light station is kept in as neat a condition as it was by its meticulous keepers. Although Key West is more well-known as the home of Hemingway, Key lime pie, and sunset celebrations, the lighthouse certainly deserves to be placed on any listing of the island’s top attractions.