The 95-foot Cape Florida Lighthouse in Miami-Dade County is a site you might want to visit. Today, Florida Time introduces readers to another history-filled list -- historic places throughout the state.
When Hurricane Andrew slammed Miami-Dade County in 1992, the magnificent woods of Key Biscayne, a picturesque community across Biscayne Bay from downtown Miami, were laid horizontal. Sticking up alone from the kindling, in defiance of Andrew and other hurricanes that have failed to budge it over the course of a century, was the 95-foot Cape Florida Lighthouse. It is the oldest standing structure in Miami-Dade County.
The 400-acre state recreation area surrounding it was severely damaged by Andrew, and would not reopen for a year.
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When the lighthouse was first built in 1825 to aid boats around the end of the peninsula, Florida had been American territory for seven years. It would not be a state for two decades. And only about 500 non-Indians lived in South Florida.
For decades, the solid brick structure -- tapering in thickness from 5 feet at the base to 2 feet at the top -- has withstood storms, the onslaught of the elements, invaders and the encroachment of development.
Perhaps its greatest stand came against an attack by Seminole Indians and the botched suicide attempt of a panicking assistant keeper named John Thompson.
On July 23, 1836, the lighthouse was stormed by Seminoles who set its base afire.
Trapped on the catwalk at the top, Thompson decided there was only one way out: to throw a keg of gunpowder down the flaming interior of the lighthouse, blowing up himself and the Indians, thus allowing him to be quick-fried instead of slow-roasted and making him a martyr of the Second Seminole War.
Instead, the tower turned into a giant Roman candle, scaring off the Indians. The fire was smothered when the interior stairway collapsed.
When the smoke had cleared, the lighthouse was saved. Thompson was alive -- dazed and slightly shot up. It was later learned the builder, to cut his brick costs in half, and secretly built hollow walls much of the way up.
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In 1842, a contractor bolstered the tower; he may have completely leveled it and built a new structure. In 1855, the military extended the lighthouse's height to 95 feet and then headed north to build the lighthouse at the Seminole War outpost of Fort Jupiter. The leader of the endeavor, George Gordon Meade, would later win the historic Civil War clash at Gettysburg.
The Cape Florida Lighthouse was abandoned in 1878 when a new one was built at Fowey Rock, several miles to the southeast in southern Biscayne Bay. That lighthouse is now the official lighthouse used for navigation. But a century later, in 1978, the U.S. Coast Guard re-established the light at Cape Florida Lighthouse.
Surrounding it is Bill Baggs State Park, named for the editor of the afternoon Miami News. When the 400 acres came open for purchase, Baggs successfully pressed the state to buy. He would die of pneumonia the same month the deal was signed.
If you go:
What: Cape Florida Lighthouse at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park
When: Visitors may tour the tower five days a week, with tours taking place at 10 am and 1pm. The tower is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Where: 1200 South Crandon Blvd., Key Biscayne, FL 33149
Cost: Free with park entry ($8 per car)
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A reader asks: I really enjoy your weekly reports. Just wondering if u had ever done an article about the 3 Germans that landed in Ponta Vedra. It is very interesting. They were all caught. -Daniel H.
Eliot answers: Hi Daniel. Yes I've dealt with that story extensively. It appears in my 1999 book, War in Paradise. My 2019 Florida Time columns are blocked out through the end of the year, but I'll put it on my list for 2020. Thanks for the suggestion!
Eliot Kleinberg has been a staff writer for the past three decades at The Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, and is the author of 10 books about Florida (www.ekfla.com). Florida Time is a product of GateHouse Media and publishes online in their 22 Florida markets including Jacksonville, Fort Walton Beach, Daytona Beach, Lakeland, Sarasota and West Palm Beach. Submit your questions, comments or memories to FloridaTime@Gatehousemedia.com. Include your full name and hometown. Sorry; no personal replies.