(*Note: This travel log drafted on July 27, 2017)
Lighthouses don’t move…well, not normally. Usually it takes something like a hurricane, demolition, or a space-time continuum inversion to make a lighthouse get up and move. I’m happy to say the Key West Lighthouse is right where I left it the last time I saw it in June 2002.
Despite the humorous opening, the Key West Lighthouse did move once. The great hurricane of 1846 that devastated so much of the island toppled that tower, killing fourteen people who were hiding inside it, including six of the seven children of keeper Barbara Mabrity. She had taken over as keeper after her husband passed away in 1832. When the tower started to crumble Mabrity was able to grab only one child and escape into the storm.
She took over the new tower when it was completed until being fired in 1864 for making anti-Union statements during the Civil War (she was 84 years old). During the passage of the decades a succession of keepers came, and several died or were incapacitated and were succeeded by their wives. For example, Mary Bethel took over as keeper in 1908 when her husband, William, died of yellow fever. That’s one reason I love lighthouse lore—lighthouses were one of the early places in American history where women broke the glass lantern room floor and became fully-paid professionals in their own right.
The current tower was built inland on a hill in order to be more resistant to future storms (it worked; the tower is still there). It’s 70 feet tall, and its position on the hill puts the light at a total height of 100 feet above sea level. An iron stairway with 88 steps spirals up to the lantern room. Aside from the absolutely stunning panorama that lets one see the entire island at once, climbing the tower brings you literally into footsteps of history. Early lantern designs required the keepers (male or female, didn’t matter) to climb that tower up to six times a night. Later lantern systems may have reduced the nightly climbs to once a night, but the lantern windows had to be cleaned every day, the wicks trimmed, and the lens polished. Keepers and their assistants (even family members were expected by the Lighthouse Service to chip in and work!) probably had the best developed leg muscles this side of Batman.
Climbing the Key West Lighthouse tower—or any lighthouse tower for that matter—is one of the few ways an individual in the 21st century can get a visceral, personal experience of life in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.
The current keeper’s quarters were built in 1887. Today the Key West Arts and Historical Society maintain the site and the keeper’s quarters have been turned into a very comprehensive museum. A reenactor reads audio programs in the character of Barbara Mabrity, and her narration not only gives you the nuts-and-bolts of keeping a lighthouse working, but also delves into the lives of the children, the evolving island society, etc. You can get a very concise education on Key West’s history by simply visiting the Lighthouse.
While touring around the light I learned the Arts and Historical Society also maintains a museum in the Customs House in Old Town (northwest corner of the island off Mallory Square). The Customs House was completed in 1891 and was a bit of an architectural leap for Key West. A very modern, very big brick structure, it screamed “U.S. Government!” and provided space for the orderly processing of customs duties in the busy port. Being so modern, big, beautiful, and governmental-looking, it was used as the site of the inquiry into the destruction of the battleship USS Maine (ACR 1), which blew up in Havana Harbor in 1898.
The inquiry ruled that the ship was probably blown up by a mine that detonated the forward magazines. No actual responsibility was assigned by the inquiry to the Spanish government in Cuba, but the event triggered the U.S. to declare war on Spain. (Note: modern forensics are unable to determine an exact cause of the explosion, partly because the wreckage was raised and sunk far out to sea, but a history of evidently shoddy conditions the captain did not take a round turn on and fix makes me think the ship most likely blew up accidentally).
Today the first floors are rotating exhibits (currently featuring an exhibit on the Navy’s history in Key West to coincide with the 100th anniversary of NAS Key West). The second floor has an incredible display telling the incredible story of Robert Flagler’s railway marvel that linked the keys to the mainland. The Labor Day Hurricane in 1935 derailed the railroad, but the modern Overseas Highway runs along many of the original right-of-ways of that defunct rail line.
I had intended to pay a second visit to the Ernest Hemingway House and the Truman Little White House (I first visited them in 2002), but learning that the Customs House was now the third branch of the museums maintained by the Art and Historical Society (I wrote about the branch at the East Martello Tower the other day in “Key West Ghosts”), I diverted north and spent the afternoon in the Customs House.
I actually stayed so long they started turning out the lights and locking up the building! I don’t think they realized I was still upstairs.
Now…another lovely quiet evening alone by the pool while the other guys are out at dinner or hitting the bars. I had a drink with them at happy hour at the resort’s pool bar, then took a nap and came back outside. Maybe after I do retire from the Navy I’ll be able to reset my body so I don’t have to eat dinner at 5:00 p.m., but for now the dictates of Navy life dictate my stomach clock! I get a lot of strange looks from them as they are gearing up to go out at night while I’m gearing down to chill. But, then, I’ve spent all day pedaling around the island climbing lighthouses and poking my nose into old, odd, haunted, and cultural places.
Pretty clear sky tonight. Scorpio and Sagittarius are up. Looks like Mars is up tonight too.
Two days to go until I have to go back to Virginia and get hip-deep in the retirement process. Tomorrow I’ve got a historic Coast Guard cutter to visit, then will probably go spend the evening at Mallory Square for the daily Sunset Celebration again. I can’t think of a better way to close out this remarkable week than hanging out in that street fair! Otherwise, I need to start catching up photos for Instagram (@sparks1524) and Facebook.