Coastal Guardians

By: Herb Hiller

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Thirty of these historic lights rim Florida. They recount American glory and, rewarding in another way, each is mere steps from the beach.

Inspired by beauty that surrounds them, lovers in paradise have been known to propose to their soulmates atop the Key West Lighthouse. They're on air, high above the flowering treetops of the seafaring old town. But it is not just in Key West where romance ascends towering heights. Everywhere, lighthouses attract lovers. Many return to exchange vows and later to relive their memories with their children.

But lovers, like most people, are also drawn by heroism and lore. Lighthouses evoke strong emotions: They're proud and defiant places, icons of destiny that, beginning almost 300 years ago, enabled the onset of American overseas commerce. Their far-flung beacons lately tended by lightkeepers and their families still spark far different emotions for mariners than for the rest of us at leisure. Coastal sailors respectfully keep their distance, fearing dangers that lights warn against.

Today, lighthouses are keepers themselves, keepers of maritime history that visitors are often surprised to learn dates back further in Florida than anywhere in coastal America. By their resilient forms, house museums and picturesque grounds, lighthouse compounds open to the public tell their dark and sunny stories alike about America's seafaring heritage.

Thirty of these historic lights rim Florida. Five towers are open year 'round. They recount American glory and, rewarding in another way, each is mere steps from the beach.


KEY WEST LIGHTHOUSE

If Key West is Florida's irresistible party town, the Key West Lighthouse Museum is its indispensable visitor site. No place better shows off where partygoers stage their fun. Climb the 88 steps to the tower top and look around. Everywhere, blue sea frames green canopy that, peek-a-boo style, reveals handsome wood buildings in place since the mid-19th century. The lofty view inspires the notion that Old Town's fun and games might be less simply frivolous and, more admirably, the celebration of a rare and distinct place.

There was no Key West when America acquired Florida from Spain in 1819. The town's founding in 1821 had to wait until the Navy dispatched the pirates that roved the Surrounding straits. The Navy added two protective lights, the first in 1825 at Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas, the second a year later in Key West.

Safety spurred the settlement that was a godsend for the ships' carpenters who built Old Town, with its eaves of lacy fretwork and jigsaw-carpentered balustrades, the stylistic legacy that still today leaves the island compelling. But the original light was a puny thing destroyed by a hurricane 20 years later. One who survived when 14 perished in the tower's collapse was its keeper, Barbara Mabrity. Some say she lost six children. Though slim consolation if only one, the Coast Guard named a buoy tender for her.

Key West's replacement light was a 58.5-foot (to the center of the light) brick structure that rose in 1848. Lengthened by 20 feet in 1893, that's the tower in place today. It's painted white like the former keeper's quarters (now a museum) and like the surrounding picket fence that sets apart the grassy lawn where banana, banyan and sapodilla trees grow.

The Coast Guard declared the light surplus in 1969 after a string of lights went up directly atop the shoals themselves. The Key West Art and Historical Society operates the site today. Hemingway House is across the street.

Nowadays, the Key West Lighthouse protects only history.


CAPE FLORIDA LIGHTHOUSE

As recently as the end of WWII, Key Biscayne remained a palm plantation unbridged from mainland Miami. No town existed. Roads were "paved" with coconut husks and a primitive lighting system shut down soon after dark. People talked about having rafted up at the annual Washington Birthday chowder party hosted by Commodore William J. Matheson, the key's proprietor in the early 20th century.

Good times still animate Key Biscayne, today a nearly built-out resort retirement community. It's home to luxurious beach resorts and a mom-and-pop-style motel. An adjacent causeway-bridged island is home to the Miami Seaquarium. Miles of beach encompass county-owned Crandon Park and, beyond the town, Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park.

Seen at land's end from atop Cape Florida Light, clear waters wash the creamy flats that supply footing for boat-only accessible Stiltsville. You can view the last seven remaining stilt homes that were built on pilings starting in the 1930s. Though commissioned in 1825 (ahead of the light at Key West) to guard American shipping through the perilous Straits of Florida, the Cape Florida Light has been a chancy survivor: Seminoles attacked with killing fury. Damage to its lens darkened the light during the Civil War. The light soon went dark almost forever, replaced by the spidery structure at Fowey Rocks built directly on the dangerous reef.

Thankfully, "forever" lasted only a century when, after the tower had already been extended to its present 95-foot height and later included in Cape Florida State Park, the Coast Guard re-commissioned the light in 1978. In 1992, after catastrophic Hurricane Andrew, Dade Heritage Trust restored the tower, painting it white, and, at its base, restoring the keeper's quarters, which shows an interpretive video.

Guided tours carry visitors on the grounds. For climbing the tower's 112 steps, sneakers work better than flip-flops. Otherwise, beachgoers at the lighthouse end of the park also enjoy a waterfront restaurant and watersports rentals.


PONCE DE LEON INLET LIGHTHOUSE

No Florida light stands so intimately in touch with its town as this 175-foot-tall tower and compound at the foot of the peninsula that drops south from Daytona Beach. No other stands surrounded by several restaurants (one just across the road). No other ranks as a National Historic Landmark.

Ponce Light earns its historical ranking because of the innovative methods used in its construction and its importance as a navigational aid.

Rough seas off the inlet that sank the gunrunner Commodore inspired the classic short story, The Open Boat, by Stephen Crane, a reporter on board and wreck survivor. Though briefly decommissioned in 1970, the tower has remained the identifying landmark of Ponce Inlet, a town incorporated only in 1963 though for years favored by end-of-the-road escapists. Today, the tower is illuminated by a third-order Fresnel lens, first used at the site in 1933. The lens was restored by the museum staff and now serves as an active private aid to navigation . Even while still under Coast Guard cognizance, one of the compound's three lightkeeper houses for a time served as Ponce Inlet town hall.

The town acquired the tower with its compound in 1972, turning it over to the Ponce de Leon Lighthouse Preservation Association, the first private group to operate a lighthouse in Florida and which has run it ever since. Its exemplary site includes the 203-step-tall tower and its outbuildings - the keepers' quarters, a video theater in a former woodshed and a modern Fresnel lens exhibit building, among others. There's a small boatyard of historic vessels from the area, a nature trail and a large souvenir shop that includes copies of Crane's book.

Each building interprets an aspect of the light's history and the town, which remains its own quiet place. Fewer than 3,000 live here. Visitors come for the beach, for the pier, for charter boats, for the waterfront restaurants and to walk the town's canopied lanes, escapist as ever.


ST. AUGUSTINE LIGHTHOUSE

A research program with public exhibits at this installation that protects the harbor of the oldest city in America makes visits to the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum doubly rewarding.

St. Augustine is Florida's oldest light, built close by a site first lit by Spain in 1737 that ultimately failed and was replaced under the Stars and Stripes in 1824. Earthquakes, hurricanes, hailstorms, lightning strikes, arson - even snow flurries - have all assailed St. Augustine Light. At that, the current 219-step, 161-foot tower, built in 1874, is only the successor to the 1824 replacement of Spain's best effort, which itself washed out to sea.

Like Florida lights elsewhere, St. Augustine dispensed with its onsite keeper after automation in the mid-20th century. After automation, lamplighters performed only daily inspections. With no one at home, the keeper's house suspiciously burned in 1970. Ten years later, the Junior Service League of St. Augustine launched its effort, and in the 1990s, successfully restored the tower and keeper's site to its turn-of-the-last-century look, with a gift shop that includes the best selection of lighthouse books in Florida.

Now the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program has moved onto the grounds and serves as the museum's research and conservation arm. Its work around St. Augustine harbor has already pinpointed nearly 300 wrecks. One, the 1764 remains of the British transport sloop Industry, centers an exhibition as exciting as a movie. It details how St. Augustine's British period began with privation from loss of the Industry's provisions, about how insurance-driven skullduggery might have precipitated the loss and about how even as recovery of the wreck began, modern-day thieves looted the site, carrying off cannons.

On your visit to St. Augustine, add spooks to thieves. Ghost tours of the lighthouse tell scary tales, including one about children heard but not seen and another about a lightkeeper that mysteriously fell from the tower.

Trails run through the maritime hammock that surrounds the black-and-white-swirled lighthouse. Atop, views reveal the earth's curvature to the east while soaring far west across the Ancient City. From below, it's only minutes to Anastasia State Park, to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, to popular restaurants and across the Bridge of Lions back to town.


OTHER LIGHTHOUSES ON AND OFF LIMITS

A look-but-keep-out policy lets visitors get close to most Florida lighthouses - even those offshore - while offering protection of many kinds.

Why off limits? Many reasons. Among these, Loggerhead Key in the Dry Tortugas because its light centers an important nesting site of endangered loggerhead turtles; Cape Canaveral Lighthouse because of national security, though bus tours from Kennedy Space Center can be arranged. On the other hand, the lights of the Florida Reef that warn of mortal threats also beckon snorkelers and scuba divers. Dozens of dive operators can get you to these lights from Fowey Rocks in the north to Sand Key just off Key West. You can also boat over on your own, making sure to tie up to one of the mooring buoys instead of tossing your hook onto the corals.

At Carysfort Reef off Key Largo, for example, is a mature reef approximately four miles long, replete with staghorn, elkhorn, brain, star and fire corals. Molasses Reef is off Key largo, a complex spur-and-groove reef ranging in depths from 10 to 70 feet, while brain corals drop away from the light at Alligator Reef, a Sanctuary Protected Area (SPA) located approximately six miles to the south-southwest of Windley Key. Sand Key, an SPA, is located approximately seven miles southwest of Key West and is marked by a 110-foot light tower. There are ledges that drop from 45 to 70 feet. Reef fingers are home to abundant elkhorn and fire corals as well as reef fish and turtles.


THE FRESNEL LENS

The world's earliest lights were wood fires atop cliffs. Later came lard, oil and kerosene with reflectors used to cast protective beams seaward.

Modern breakthrough occurred in 1819 when French physicist Augustin Jean Fresnel invented a beehive-shaped lens and prism that captured the light source more efficiently and cast a beam farther than anything then known. Though since surpassed by more modern optics, the Fresnel lens is still used at St. Augustine Light and also displayed close up at Ponce Inlet Light.

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