Civil War & New Keepers

The Civil War

When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Fort Zachary Taylor remained under Union control.  The Fort was central to the Union’s sea blockade during the war.

Even though Key West was a Union city, its residents were sympathetic to the Confederacy.  Barbara Mabrity, too, had pro-South leanings but took her lighthouse duties seriously.  She never failed to keep the light shining, though many of the lights further north along the southeastern seaboard were extinguished to thwart navigation of Union ships maintaining the blockade.  In fact, the Key West Lighthouse was the only Florida light station not to fall to the Confederacy during the war.

Nevertheless, in 1864, it was alleged that Mabrity made remarks disloyal to the Union and was urged to retire.  Mabrity, now 82-years-old and not a weak woman, was staunchly defiant.  When she refused to step down, she was fired after 38 years of service, 32 of them as head lighthouse keeper.  Three years later, she died at age 85, but the Mabritys had spawned a lighthouse dynasty.

A Family of Keepers

Following Mabrity’s death, John J. Carroll (who married Mabrity’s granddaughter Mary Armanda Fletcher) was promoted from Assistant Lighthouse Keeper to Head Lighthouse Keeper in 1866.  Mary Carroll served as Assistant Keeper to her husband from 1876 until 1889, when he died.  She then was appointed Keeper, but she died three months later of typhoid.

Earlier, Barbara Mabrity’s daughter, Nicolosa, had married Captain Joseph Bethel in 1831.  Captain Bethel served at the Dry Tortugas light station on Garden Key and then as Keeper of Sombrero Lighthouse from 1858 to 1879.  Their son, William Bethel, became Key West Lighthouse keeper following Mary Carroll’s death while his wife, Mary Elizabeth, was named Assistant Keeper.

When William Bethel died in 1910, Mary Bethel assumed his duties, remaining at the light with her son, Merrill, as assistant until 1915.  Thus, the Mabrity family and their descendants were associated with the Key West Lighthouse for more than 70 years.

New Luxuries

To accommodate the Lighthouse keepers and their families, a new structure was built on the grounds.  The Keeper’s Quarters was completed in 1887 and was able to house up to two families.  The Quarters offered its tenants 19th century luxuries, and also allowed for the keepers’ families to live, work, and play amongst Key West’s inhabitants.

Expanding the Lighthouse's Reach

Key West’s urbanization during the later 19th century proved problematic for mariners.  The increasing height of the island’s structures and vegetation blocked the tower’s light.

In 1894, Congress allocated maintenance funds including money to increase the height of the tower.  When construction ended in the following year, the tower stood at a full 40’ taller, and sailors could see its unobstructed light far out at sea.

A New Era

By the early 20th century the Key West Lighthouse was electrified, which meant that a full-time keeper was no longer necessary.  By the 1960s, the increased use of radar and sonar made the lighthouse obsolete.

In 1966, the Key West Art & Historical Society took over operation of the Keeper’s Quarters, converting the structure into a military museum.  The Coast Guard eventually decommissioned the Key West Lighthouse in 1969.  In December of that year, the 83-year-old Jennie Bethel deBoer, daughter of former keepers William and Mary Bethel, officially turned off Key West’s light.

A New Life for the Lighthouse

In the 1980s, the Lighthouse & Keeper’s Quarters underwent a three-year restoration process.  Key West Art & Historical Society replaced the military museum with exhibitions telling the story of the Keepers who kept the light burning.  The clapboard bungalow that housed the keepers and their families was recreated to mirror the turn-of-the-century lifestyle complete with historic furniture, artifacts, and photographs of the culture and history of early Key West.

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