First Lighthouse & Keepers
The first lighthouse in Key West was built in 1825 along the shoreline at Whitehead Spit. Lieutenant (later Commodore) Matthew C. Perry recommended its construction to warn ships off of the treacherous shoals surrounding the island. It was a whitewashed brick tower, 47’ high from its foundation to the base of its black iron lantern. With the height of the lantern and the dune on which it stood, the light was 67’ above sea level, the tallest structure on the island.
Mariner Michael Mabrity
Michael Mabrity, a mariner and harbor pilot from St. Augustine, Florida, was appointed temporary lighthouse keeper and his wife, Barbara, his assistant.
At dusk, January 13, 1826, the Mabritys adjusted the 15-inch diameter silvered reflectors and lit the 15 whale-oil-fueled Argand lamps for the first time. Four days later, President John Quincy Adams signed the formal papers officially appointing Mabrity as keeper. It was a primitive light, and keeping it was labor intensive. The lamp wicks needed to be trimmed four times a night. Because the lamps emitted so much soot, the Lanthorn Glass also had to be cleaned every four hours.
Barbara Mabrity Succeeds Her Husband
When Mabrity succumbed to yellow fever, a common disease in the summer of 1832, William Adee Whitehead, the Collector of Customs, appointed Barbara Mabrity to succeed him. Not only was she well qualified, Whitehead said, but also she needed the modest salary to support her six fatherless children.
Life was good for Barbara Mabrity in Key West, but not idyllic. Further north, the Second Seminole War was in full swing, and on July 23, 1836, Indians sacked the Cape Florida Lighthouse. Key West was in near-panic.
The USS Constitution, the famous “Old Ironsides”, was brought into Key West harbor for protection, and Whitehead Street was extended from the harbor to the lighthouse, giving the Mabrity family an escape route.
A Meticulous Duty
Barbara Mabrity’s record of light-keeping diligence was flawless. In 1843, a new Collector of Customs and Superintendent of Lighthouses for Key West reported that the Key West Lighthouse was “as usual, efficient and well kept.”
Also that year, a citizens’ group wrote to Washington D.C. that, “Mrs. Mabrity, the keeper of the light upon this island, has for a number of years performed the duties of her office with fidelity…” They stated that she, “still practices rigid economy in her mode of living and yet has not been able to accumulate any property to support her in old age…a just appreciation of her past services and her present situation give her an equitable claim upon the government for assistance.” The government, however, took no notice of the petition.
In 1845, construction of a new fort, later to be called Fort Zachary Taylor, began between the Lighthouse and the harbor, something that Mrs. Mabrity welcomed. But tragedy loomed on the horizon.