The Key Largo Lighthouse has been a fixture of the island for over 60 years. However, this faux lighthouse has a much deeper history contained high within its tower, a history built by determined engineers, and a dire need to light a clear path through the reefs.
It all began in the early 1850s when Lt. George G. Meade examined a shoal 43 miles west of Key West, Florida. He was tasked with submitting plans to mark the shoal with a day beacon to illuminate the dark space between the lights at Sand Key and Dry Tortugas.
Lt. Mead’s plans for Rebecca Shoal were approved, but he encountered delay after delay in its construction. Getting proper materials to the remote location and maintaining a work crew in unpredictable weather eventually proved too much for the lieutenant.
In 1855, Lt. Mead had to call it quits and inform the Lighthouse Board, stating, “In reporting this failure, which no one can regret more than myself… [I] am satisfied now, that no light-house structure of any kind has been erected, either in this country or in Europe, at a position more exposed and offering greater obstacles than the Rebecca shoal.”
Lt. Mead requested additional funds to continue his efforts, but a simple iron screw-pile day beacon was placed on the shoal in 1858 instead. The need for a better beacon did not go away, however, and the Lighthouse Board reactivated the venture nearly 30 years later, in 1883.
The board wrote, “The establishment of this light will complete the plan for the proper
lighting of these reefs, which was formulated by the preliminary commission of 1851, and which has been kept steadily in view by the Light-House Board. Its importance is shown by the number of wrecks which have taken place in this unlighted space, and by the large number of vessels constantly passing in this vicinity.”
The Rebecca Shoal Lighthouse was finally completed in 1886. Built on iron stilts, the one-and- a-half-story wooden lighthouse was 66 feet tall, including the lantern room at the top. This lantern room is what links the old working Rebecca Shoal Lighthouse to the privately- owned Key Largo Lighthouse.
The Rebecca Shoal Lighthouse was manned until 1925, when it became automated with an acetylene gas system. It was a more affordable and safer solution compared to manning the remote outpost.
Deterioration and vandalism eventually led to the house being removed in 1953, and the lantern room was sold for scrap. 7 years later, the lantern room was recovered by a private property owner that was building a lighthouse at the end of his canal in Key Largo.
Becoming known as the Key Largo Lighthouse, the unofficial local landmark was highly admired but, once again, deteriorated over time. In 2001, David and Mariana McGraw purchased the 2-acre land the lighthouse sits on and lovingly restored the structure, including the long- historied lantern.
In addition to restoring the lighthouse, the McGraws researched and pieced together its history. Its lantern is the only known surviving piece of the famous Rebecca Shoal Lighthouse, establishing it as a key player in a 170-year- old story.
The McGraws turned the lighthouse into a guesthouse with two rooms and a restroom. They painted the exterior with a red and white checkerboard daymark, recapturing attention as a beloved local landmark.
The Rebecca Shoal lantern remains its crowning jewel. The lantern resided atop the Rebecca Shoal Lighthouse for 67 years and has topped the Key Largo Lighthouse for 64 years. Only time and care will tell how long its light will continue to shine in Key Largo.
– Jerrica Mah is a writer, Army wife, and freelance book editor who loves to travel vicariously through stories.