Digest>Archives> May 2002

Some Transfers Are Not Easy

By Richard Clayton


The winter wind was rather cool with strong gusts. Though the main brunt of the storm was in the North Atlantic, the seas were running high in the Florida Keys. Mr. Bell often said that when it blew so hard through the iron braces of the lighthouse, it sounded like a woman screaming. His three assistants were securing the Keeper’s belongings in the sailboat and getting ready for Mr. Bell and the First Assistant to get under way. The Lighthouse Board’s Letter of Transfer noted that on February 13, 1881 Edward Bell was to have been relieved of duties as the Principal Keeper at the Carysfort Reef Light and was to proceed to the Key West Light as the Head Keeper at that station. Mr. Bell’s replacement was Mr. H.A. Magill. The logbook entry of February 11th records the activity of that day.

“Keeper Bell had all his little things and clothing in the sailboat to sail to Key West. In lowering the boat, when she had been but very little down, the chain broke at the stem of the boat and the boat fell down in the water. Keeper Bell lost most all of his clothing and bed clothes, compass and lantern. We tried to re-lift the boat, all we could, but there was a good deal of sea and we could not get her up right again. We strapped her sail and took out considerable balance of her mast, when the mast got unstrapped and continued and went through the port side of the bow. The chain broke on the other end and we found that we could not manage to get the boat up again. So, we hoisted the ensign on the lighthouse to get some assistance from some of the wrecking vessels that were passing. We have the boat tied as well as we can and have secured her, but she lies partly bottom up. We worked pretty hard to save her. The wreckers have all gone north; however, we expect to get help tomorrow The boat is pretty badly used up, but still may be repaired if we do not lose her.”

Edward Bell had mixed emotions about leaving this station. The work was routine and often monotonous, but he would miss the comradery that had been building with his assistant keepers. The lighthouse was one of six built on the coral reefs that paralleled the Florida Keys, a chain of coral and limestone islands about 128 miles long, curving south and west of the Florida mainland and Florida Bay.

Established in 1852, the 110-foot iron-skeleton tower, built in open water directly over the reef, in one foot of water, was located some six miles off the coast of Key Largo. The spring and summers were hot with very little wind and the men were plagued with hoards of mosquitoes. And there was the ghost. Over the years, most of the keepers believed it to be the ghost of Captain Johnson, who had died at the lighthouse shortly after its construction. They heard him every night, all summer long. As darkness swirled around the tower and the cool air of the evenings blew into the keepers’ quarters, a low groan echoed up the stair cylinder, grew louder, and then ended in a high-pitched screech. The devilish groans and screams continued until after midnight. The men knew the station was haunted, but soon the keepers learned to take the ghostly intruder in stride. He never harmed anyone, just spooked them a bit now and then.

Fall was the hurricane season and the winter winds were unpredictable, gusty and often accompanied by high seas. It was a lonely outpost with lots of work to do and few comforts. The routine was monotonous.

The entry for February 12th reads: “We hoisted up both flags to try and get some assistance from the wrecking schooners, to help save our boat. We have put two tackles on the chain of davit, the link of chain is what broke and let the boat fall down, the hook in the other chain straightened out. The boat bottom is up. We took rope and put it under her by diving down and taking two turns of a large rope and made it pretty secure. Then we hauled the boat up out of the water and hoisted her up as high as she could be taken and secured her as best we could. The Keeper took down both flags; we had done all we could. The boat is nearly a complete wreck, and we have nothing here in this house in the shape of rope or tackle.”

As the 20th century comes to a close, it may be difficult for the reader to imagine the vast amount of marine traffic that abounded in the area off the Florida Keys in the 19th century. There were three-masted schooners sailing out of Portland bound for the Caribbean with cargoes of ice; barks loaded with California cowhides bound for Boston; local merchants shipping hardware goods and grocery products in brigs and sloops; Yankee clippers racing to New England ports with goods from the orient; steamboats carrying passengers between the East Coast and the Gulf Coast; local fishermen sailing into port every night with their loads of shrimp; hundreds of vessels passing the lighthouses every week. Occasionally some even stopped by for a visit.

Many ship captains, with crews of less than twenty men on these merchant vessels had little to no knowledge of navigation on the open sea. Whenever they lost sight of land, they were lost at sea until they happened to sail back toward a view of the mainland. They only knew where they were by the navigational aids along the shoreline and at night by the lighthouses. In the Florida Keys were a group of salvage ship companies that had been nicknamed “The Wreckers.” If a cargo vessel ran into a reef and was destroyed, then by the rules of salvage on the high seas, a “wrecker” could lay claim to that vessel and its cargo. If the ship was disabled, but not destroyed, one of the “wreckers” might be hired to tow the unfortunate vessel to the nearest port for repair. (In earlier years, “wreckers” had used many devious devices to lure unsuspecting ships to sail into the reefs, deliberately causing a shipwreck.) Unlike the lighthouse keepers, the wreckers were not in the business of saving lives.

Therefore, had the men on duty at the Carysfort Reef Light allowed the sailboat to lay bottom up in the water below the lighthouse, a “wrecker” could have laid claim to it and taken it away, leaving them with no means of transportation to the mainland. The lighthouse tender arrived the next morning with Mr. Magill on board. With scarcely a word of greeting to the new keeper, Mr. Bell climbed aboard the lighthouse supply ship and requested passage to Key West.

This entry was thus recorded on February 13th: “H. W. Magill relieved Bell as Principal Keeper, Bell going AT ONCE to Key West without turning property over to the new keeper.” The new Principal Keeper, H.W. Magill lasted exactly six months and a day. On August 14, 1881, F.A. Brost replaced him. He stayed three and a half years and was replaced in January 1885 by Martin Weatherford, who resigned after 18 months. In August 1886, William Lester became head keeper and was on duty for eight years. In May 1894, Francis McNulty was appointed keeper. He died at the station at 2:00 PM on March 3, 1903. In April, Miguel Fabal became principal keeper and was still there in 1912 when the last entry in that logbook was written. Seven head keepers and a bevy of assistants stood watch at this lonely outpost from 1881 to 1900.

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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