The Hurricane of 1846
On October 10, 1846, Barbara Mabrity climbed the narrow wooden spiral staircase to begin her daily routine of turning down the wicks to extinguish the 15 oil lamps.
She removed the glass chimneys when the lamps had cooled and wiped down the silvered reflectors, covering them with cotton cowls. She then filtered the whale oil from each lamp into a clean container and disassembled and cleaned each lamp before putting it back together. Next, she polished all the brass and reset the wicks for the night.
All of these were vital chores were required each day to keep the light in working order. It was almost noon by the time she finished. Throughout the day, hardly a breath of air moved, and the seas were calm. It was pleasant, almost summer-like, until late afternoon when erratic waves began to build off the coast and punctuate the waters near shore.
In those days of slow communication, no one in Key West knew a severe tropical hurricane was sweeping across Cuba and preparing to devastate Havana only 90 miles to the south.
Whether she noticed the sudden drop in the barometer near dusk is not known, but dark gathering clouds probably warned Mabrity that a major blow was approaching. Certainly, like many Key Westers, she was weather sensitive and realized that such an uncharacteristic calm day was known as a ‘weather breeder’ – an atmosphere that foreshadowed bad weather. But, having endured the 1835, 1841 and 1842 hurricanes, Barbara Mabrity was a veteran.
During the night, the winds increased and monstrous waves beat against the shore. When Mabrity climbed the lighthouse stairway on the morning of October 11, it was quite different than the previous day. With the storm raging around her, she performed only the necessary tasks. Though it was 10AM, it was dark as night. Visibility in the driving rain was reduced to zero, and the winds were violent and escalating.
The Storm Rises
Below her, a few Key West residents began to arrive at the lighthouse believing its brick structure to be safer than their wood frame houses. Then the full hurricane hit and blasted the island until after midnight.
The tides rose, and waves soon flooded into the keeper’s residence, forcing people to seek shelter in the lighthouse itself. It was at that point a huge wave struck and the keeper’s quarters and the lighthouse were swept away.
Not far from the lighthouse, the partially completed fort was also wiped clean of all structures except the cistern, the smithy and the stables. Ships in the harbor were laid on their beam-ends, three brigs were dismasted and three schooners were sunk. Sand Key Light, about five miles away, was gone. Key West was in ruins.
Near the lighthouse, some 14 bodies were recovered, including the majority of Barbara Mabrity’s children. But, by some miracle, Mabrity had survived.
In the wake of the hurricane’s destruction, workers installed a temporary beacon upon a 30’ tall tripod. Stephen Mallory, Collector of Customs in charge of the lighthouse, successfully lobbied Washington D.C. for federal funds to erect a new facility in Key West. Subsequently, Mallory purchased a $200 acre of land located further inland and 14’ above sea level.
In March of 1847, the U.S. Congress allocated $12,000 for the construction of the current Key West lighthouse and accompanying dwelling. When building ended in January 1848, the total cost of the project amounted to $7,247.77. The light emitted from the 46’ tall tower projected over 11 nautical miles. Despite her harrowing experience during the 1846 hurricane, Barbara Mabrity continued her duties as keeper.
The years that followed saw various improvements to the lighthouse. In 1858, a Third Order Fresnel Lens, shipped from Paris, was installed inside the tower’s watch room. The new lens increased the light’s visibility and reduced the amount of maintenance it required.