When Ponce de Leon led the first Spanish expedition in 1513 to the land he called Florida, he visited this area and named it the "Cape of Florida." It was an area of ferocious storms and uncharted waters. Hidden sandbars and submerged reefs, were a hazard to early sailors, causing hundreds of shipwrecks along the Straits of Florida. For this reason, one of the federal government's first actions when Florida became a U.S. Territory in 1821, was to plan for the extension of a network of lighthouses along the east coast of Florida. In 1825, the Cape Florida Lighthouse was built to serve as an important link in this network of navigational aids. The lighthouse is the oldest building in south Florida.
With the outbreak of the Second Seminole War in 1835, bloody encounters between the Seminole Indians and settlers to the area spread throughout the peninsula. By July of 1836, the threat of attack had caused the settlers to flee the mainland and take up temporary residence on one of the better-protected keys to the south.
Late in the afternoon of July 23, 1836, the Cape Florida Lighthouse was attacked and severely damaged by fire. The Assistant Lighthouse Keeper miraculously survived and was rescued by the crew of a Navy schooner. His helper, however, was killed. The lighthouse remained out of service for the balance of the Second Seminole War which ended in 1842.
By 1846, Congress had appropriated $23,000 for reconstruction of the lighthouse. On April 30, 1847, Cape Florida Lighthouse was "re-lit" for the first time. IN 1855, the height of the structure was increased from 65 to 95 feet and a 2nd Order Fresnel lens was installed.
In 1861, Confederate sympathizers removed the lamps and burners and smashed the crucial center prism so it could not be used as an aid to Union sailors who controlled the surrounding waters. The lighthouse was repaired and re-lit again in 1866.
Finally, when nearby Fowey Rocks Light was placed into service in 1878, the lens and illuminating apparatus atop the lighthouse were removed and shipped to Staten Island, NY. One hundred years later, on July 4, 1978, the light was reinstalled by the US Coast Guard to again serve as a navigational aid.
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