Historic Structures

Sanibel Lighthouse, Sanibel Florida

Date added: July 10, 2019 Categories: Florida Lighthouse

In 1832, a group of investors known as the Florida Peninsular Land Company sponsored the exploration of a portion of the Gulf Coast of Florida for the purpose of selecting a site for a permanent settlement. By the end of the year, Sanibel Island had been selected as the best location for a colony, and in 1833, a small group of settlers arrived from New York. This early settlement was not long lived (within five years, the island was nearly deserted and remained so for about twenty-five years), but the initial colonists were active in trying to develop the area. In December, 1833, thirteen residents of Sanibel Island petitioned the U. S. Treasury Department for the construction of a lighthouse on the island. However, the national government showed no interest in the idea at that time.

In December, 1856, the General Land Office received a request for the creation of a reservation of land for the purpose of establishing a lighthouse on Sanibel Island. No action was taken until the request was repeated in December, 1877. By that time, seagoing commerce in the area had reached important proportions. The General Land Office acted favorably and within two weeks, Sanibel Island was closed to private ownership.

The Lighthouse Board now began to solicit from the U. S. Congress an appropriation for the construction of a lighthouse on Sanibel Island. It argued that there was no lighthouse between Key West and Egmont Key to serve the Florida Gulf Coast shipping trade, which was increasing steadily. Steamers and many sailing ships were regularly plying the route between Key West and Gulf ports. The fact that nearby Punta Rassa was a busy cattle shipping point was not specifically mentioned, but this was an important consideration in the request for a lighthouse to serve the area. The Lighthouse Board pointed out that the vessels using this route made their landfall and took their departure from the southern point of Sanibel Island making it the logical place for a lighthouse to be erected. The Lighthouse Board recommended in 1878 and again in 1879 that $40,000 be appropriated to begin the construction of a light at that place.

It was March 3, 1881, before Congress appropriated $20,000, the amount it considered to be sufficient for construction of a lighthouse on Sanibel Key. The final cost was much larger, however, for on August 7, 1882, another $30,000 had to be appropriated for the completion of the lighthouse. It was some time before actual construction of the tower began. In April, 1883, the District Engineer surveyed the site and recommended that the east end of the island be permanently reserved for the lighthouse reservation. A few more months' delay occurred due to the fact that the state of Florida claimed ownership of the land in question under the Swamp Land Act of 1850 and did not relinquish that claim until August, 1883. Finally, on December 19, 1883, all of Sanibel Island was declared a reservation by an Executive Order signed by President James A. Garfield.

The actual construction of the lighthouse station began in February, 1884. The foundation for the lighthouse was completed within three months, but unfortunately, the schooner transporting the iron work for the tower from Jersey City was wrecked just two miles from Sanibel, and most of the cargo sank with the vessel. Assistance was provided from Key West for the salvage operation which soon commenced; all but two small pieces of the lost iron work was recovered. Construction resumed while a firm in New Orleans made duplicates of the missing parts; by the end of the summer, the lighthouse was completed. The station was lighted for the first time on August 20, 1884. It continues in use at the present time as an automatic electric light.

The tower of this lighthouse is a skeleton iron structure in the general shape of a frustum or a four-sided pyramid having a central circular cylinder enclosing a spiral stairway used for reaching the lantern. The cylinder does not adjoin the base of the pyramid, but starts from the top of a twenty foot iron column. The whole is surmounted by an iron watch room topped by the lantern housing. Both the watch room and the lantern have a separate gallery and railing. The light was 98 feet above sea level in 1884.

In close proximity to the lighthouse are two detached frame dwellings resting on well-braced iron columns; they are attached to the lighthouse by a stairway. These dwellings, constructed in 1884, incorporate architectural features indigenous to the area such as the wide verandas which extend around the buildings on three sides. On the fourth side of each structure, the basic area of which is square, is an "L" extension. The houses feature hipped roofs each surmounted by a single chimney.