Digest>Archives> May 2002

The Carysfort Lighthouse

A Haunted History

By Shirley Vanderbilt


In the shallow waters of the Florida Keys the Carysfort Lighthouse stood, straddling clear, turquoise waters and delicate coral gardens. Inside the lighthouse, several men had just settled in for a quiet evening. Suddenly their reverie was broken by an eerie sound. It began with a low moan, but then quickly escalated to a high-pitched screech. The men exchanged frightened glances with each other, not daring to speak. But each had the same thought - the ghost of Captain Johnson had returned.

The year was 1852 and the legend of Captain Johnson’s ghost had just been born. According to historic records, Captain Johnson was the first keeper of the Carysfort Lighthouse. The new, permanent iron rig replaced a succession of inadequate lightships that had been moored offshore of the dangerous Florida reef near Key Largo. Apparently, Captain Johnson died soon after, in the confines of the lighthouse. According to some accounts, he died a sinner and was doomed to roam and moan around the structure. Whether or not this was true, it certainly added fuel to the reports of his hauntings.

Fifty years passed before the mystery was solved. It was Charles Brookfield, an overnight guest at the lighthouse, who single-handedly challenged the legend of old Captain Johnson’s ghost. It was once again early evening, in 1927, when Brookfield experienced first-hand the unnerving sounds emanating from the lighthouse. He was intrigued that the “hauntings,” as they had been referred to, occurred only during warm summer months. Brookfield was the first to suggest that the eerie sounds attributed to Captain Johnson’s specter were actually a result of the lighthouse’s metal frame expansion in the summer heat and the corresponding contraction during cooler evening hours. So much for the ghost story!

Long before Captain Johnson’s ghost was exposed, the Carysfort site had begun to acquire quite an interesting history. The first guardians of the reef were lightships, established in the early 1800’s. Doomed from the outset, one wrecked as it was being towed to the Keys and another ran aground on Carysfort Reef in 1827, having to be replaced a few years later because of wood rot.

In the 1830s, during the Second Seminole War, Indian attacks were common up and down the Florida coast. The Cape Florida Lighthouse had been attacked and was out of commission, making Carysfort the only navigational light between St. Augustine and Key West. On a fateful day in 1837, the resident lightship tender, Captain Whalton, and his men rowed into nearby Garden Cove where they tended their vegetable garden. The Indians were lying in wait and attacked from the nearby wood hammocks, killing the captain and another man. So it went, one disaster after another until, in 1848, approval was given to construct the permanent lighthouse. And wouldn’t you know, it turns out to be haunted!

Many years have passed, the legend of Captain Johnson has been dispelled and the lighthouse’s carefully tended lamps have been replaced by an automated system maintained by occasional visits from the Coast Guard. Now Carysfort’s biggest claim to fame lies in its designation as the oldest functioning iron screwpile lighthouse in the United States. The reef was named for the HMS Carysford, a 28-gun frigate that ran aground on the corals in 1770. The name was changed to Carysfort during the 1800s. Prior to the construction of the lighthouse, hundreds of ships hit the reef, providing a steady bounty for the “wreckers” - locals who fished and turtled along the coast, always at the ready.

It was reported that during the hurricane of 1835, the lighthouse rocked so badly that one of the keepers became seasick. But even Hurricane Andrew couldn’t rattle the ribbings. The massive structure still stands firm, guarding the reef and all sailors passing by. While the lighthouse has lessened the toll of nighttime disasters, the reef and its shallow Elkhorn Corals continue to claim a large bounty of ships during the daytime, a phenomenon that defies common sense - and perhaps points to poor seamanship.

While the towering 112-foot structure of the lighthouse may keep large crafts at bay, it serves as a welcoming beacon to scuba divers. Spreading out from the footplates lies one of the most pristine Elkhorn Coral gardens in Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary. The reef structure is a double ledge, spur and groove system providing home to green moray eels, barracuda, lobsters and tropical fish species. Deeply cut overhangs, small caverns and narrow passageways, where these creatures abide, also provide an underwater playground for the visiting divers.

It was a dive magazine assignment in Key Largo that landed me on the Carysfort Lighthouse steps recently. With a few strategically placed calls, a brief tour of the unoccupied structure was arranged. Although badly in need of refurbishment, the charm of the quaint interior was clearly in evidence. Original wood paneled walls and 19th century architecture around doorways and windows predominated the living quarters. The exterior had been freshly painted in the original deep red and bright white, a sharp contrast to the rotting wood and rust of the interior.

At the time of my visit, there was talk of relocating the interior to a land exhibit, while the lighthouse shell was being considered for development of a research station. Whatever her final fate, the Carysfort Lighthouse has served well. As for the continuing daytime disasters, we watched from our perch on the lighthouse as a salvage crew worked on dislodging the reef’s most recent victim - a sailboat with its bow pointed straight at the lighthouse. What was that captain thinking?

This story appeared in the May 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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