On August 7, 1789, Congress approved an Act for the establishment and support of lighthouses, beacons, buoys, and public piers (lighthousefoundation.org). Two hundred years later, Congress passed a resolution designating August 7th National Lighthouse Day. Why is this significant? We have several lighthouses in southeast Florida, and probably don’t give them much of a thought. However, these were built as aids to navigation on the water (also called ATONS), to prevent ships from grounding on the coral reefs that line our southeast Florida coast.
The three most prominent fixtures off of Miami-Dade County are Boca Chita, Cape Florida Light, and Fowey Rocks Light. The first of these to be built was Cape Florida Light on the southeastern tip of Key Biscayne, located in what is now Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park. Cape Florida and Boca Chita Key are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and Fowey Rocks Lighthouse is listed as one of the “eleven most endangered historic sites in Florida” by the Florida Trust For Historic Preservation.
Cape Florida Light
Constructed in 1825, Cape Florida remains the oldest surviving lighthouse in Florida (nps.gov). Its height at original construction was 65’, but was eventually raised to 95’. Cape Florida sits as close as possible to the Gulfstream, on the southeast tip of Key Biscayne. It was built to assist the active shipping industry that utilized the waters just off of the coast, as well as vessels that often navigated into Biscayne Bay. While Cape Florida served for more than 50 years, ships were still grounding on the nearby shallow reefs, demonstrating the need for an ATON structure in the ocean.
Fowey Rocks Light
Next built was Fowey Rocks Light, completed 1878, it was the sixth and northernmost of the ocean-based lighthouses (Carysfort, Alligator Reef, Sombrero Key, American Shoal, Sand Key) located along the Florida Reef. Fowey Rocks Light stands seven miles from shore, 110’ feet tall, constructed of cast iron, and built in an octagonal design. It received its name from the British warship that sank nearby in 1748, the HMS Fowey (Leynes & Cullison, 1998). Fowey Rocks was built to replace Cape Florida, and still functions today (Biscayne National Park 2011).
Boca Chita Lighthouse
Finally, we have the iconic 65-ft lighthouse on Boca Chita Key, in what is now Biscayne National Park. The island was purchased by the wealthy businessman Mark Honeywell in 1937, to serve as his private getaway from Miami. Honeywell built several structures on the island, including a chapel, a pavilion, and the lighthouse. However, it was unlikely that the lighthouse was ever intended to serve as a navigational aid. Inspections confirmed that the proper hardware for actually securing a bulb in the lantern was missing (Leynes & Cullison, 1998). Archaeologists surmised that this lighthouse was constructed simply for ornamental use.
Whether for navigational or aesthetic reasons, it is clear to see why these lighthouses are so important to Miami’s history and future. The next time you’re lounging on the beach at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, I hope that you’ll take a moment and try to pick up Fowey Rocks in the distance, and beyond that, the Boca Chita lighthouse, and think about what all of those structures have witnessed over time. I hope that they remain in place for the next one hundred years or more. Happy National Lighthouse Day!
Biscayne National Park Draft General Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement. 2011. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. https://www.nrc.gov/docs/ML1219/ML12193A232.pdf accessed 6 August 2020
Leynes, J., Cullison, D. 1998. Biscayne National Park Historic Resource Study. National Park Service Southeast Region, Atlanta, Georgia.
www.lighthousefoundation.org accessed 6 August 2020
https://www.nps.gov/bisc/learn/historyculture/fowey-rocks-lighthouse.htm accessed 6 August 2020