The United States Lighthouse Establishment organized by Thornton
Jenkins, Rear-Admiral, United States Navy, had built many important
lighthouses upon the coast of the States. The appropriations admitted
the lighting of the dangerous coral banks of the Florida Reef, which
rose from the blue Gulf Stream many miles offshore and stretched away
from Cape Florida to Tortugas.
From Fowey Rocks to Sand Key the high, long-legged towers, built of
iron piling driven into the rock and braced with rods, rose above the
shoal water, and at night their huge lenses flashed forth a warning
gleam for twenty miles or more over the sea.
Carysfort was the second from the beginning the reef: a tall iron
structure, the lantern or lens mounted atop of a wooden house built
upon the platform at the end of the piling.
Inside of the house were the two bedrooms of the keepers, the oil-room,
storerooms, and kitchen. Large tanks of iron held hundreds of gallons
of water caught from the roof.
Outside the structure the platform extended six feet clear all around,
making a comfortable porch or piazza, with a high rail which hung out
over the sea at a height of about a hundred feet.
A long iron ladder extended from a trap-door in the flooring to the
sea below, stopping at a landing about half-way, where the keepers had
a small woodpile, a flower-bed, and a few things which would stand
exposure to the weather. At the sides of the platform above were
davits, on which the two whale-boats hung.
Altogether, the little house and platform offered some inducements to
men who were not particular about being alone for a long time.
It was many miles to the nearest land, clear out of sight from even the
top of the tower; and to those who lived there it was like being at
sea upon a small vessel which neither pitched nor rolled in a seaway,
nor yet changed position in any manner. It was almost like living in
It was a healthy life for the keepers. No germs of any known disease
ever reached the distant lighthouse, and no sickness had ever occurred
On shore, it was a well-established axiom that among the offshore
keepers none died–and few retired.
Every few months each could get a leave of absence on full pay and
spend the time in any manner he pleased. The supply-ship stopped off
the reef twice each year, and the lighthouse tender traversed the
district as high as Cape Canaveral if anything was wanted.
So at least three or four times a year the keepers would hold
communication with the outside world and converse with their fellow men.
The ships passing up the Hawk’s Channel from Key West went within a few
miles of the reef, and steamers going north outside sometimes stood in
close enough to be recognized: but the Carysfort and Alligator Reefs
were good places to keep away from, and no vessels except the spongers
remained long in sight.
The spongers consisted of small sloops and schooners, which hailed from
Key West whose owners were the wreckers of the reef, and who spent the
best part of the good weather in summer hunting the growths upon the
coral which brought such good prices in the Northern drug-stores.
Few wreckers are piously inclined, some less so than others, but the
outlying light was safe from thieves, for by hauling up the iron
ladder the keepers were shut off completely from the world below. No
one could, or would, climb those polished iron columns painted a dull
red and as slippery as glass, unless something valuable was to be had
at the top. So the keepers often left the trap-door open or unbolted,
knowing their security.
Black Flanagan was the head keeper, a six-foot giant from Wisconsin,
who had found his way to Florida while evading a Michigan sheriff. The
work and confinement upon the light were not as irksome to him as might
His assistant was a preacher, a broken-down Methodist minister without
a flock, whose religious tendencies were of an order which brooked
He had the reputation of being the most blasphemous man upon the
Florida Reef, and his short sojourns ashore were marked by every excess
capable of being committed by a human being within the law.
They called him “the howler,” for, when he was drunk–which he
invariably was an hour after he came ashore–he would stop at the
village street corners and bellow for converts.
Any one within a mile would know what was taking place, and many would
stop to listen. Failure to get responses brought forth such a torrent
of profanity that he would have to be locked up until sober–when he
would repeat the effort until his leave was over.
Then, solemnly and with ponderous dignity, he would take himself back
to his home in the air over the blue Gulf Stream, and no one would see
him again for several months. Black Flanagan would greet him with a
grunt, and the two would take up the even life of lighting the lantern
and putting it out.
Men were not struggling for their positions, and they took some comfort
from the fact. They would probably live so for a long time, drawing
good pay, with nothing whatever to do except clean and light the lamp.
It was a hot and sultry morning in August, and the keepers were hanging
lazily over the rail of the platform, when they saw the wrecking-sloop
_Sea-Horse_ coming slowly up the Hawk’s Channel.
Her main-boom was well off to port, and she was fanning along before
a very light air from the southeast, going not more than two knots an
Upon her deck lay the crew of half-naked Conchs, while at her wheel the
giant form of “Bahama Bill,” the mate, stood leaning against the shaft,
smoking a short pipe.
The fact that the black man now and then looked astern at a thin trail
of smoke caused Black Flanagan to notice him.
“There goes the _Sea-Horse_,” said he to his assistant; and they both
came to the side of the platform nearest the passing vessel.
“Never seen thet big feller show so much consarn about what was astern
o’ him, hey?” said the preacher. “Looks like they were from the
east’ard.” And he nodded significantly.
The sloop drew nearer, and the thin line of smoke rose blacker a
dozen miles astern. Then there seemed to be signs of life aboard. Two
men sprang up and began to drop large kegs overboard, making a great
splashing. They kept this up for some minutes, and the keepers went
inside the light for the telescope.
Astern of the sloop they made out small, black objects, which floated
at intervals upon the swell, and were just discernible through the
For half an hour the men aboard the wrecking-vessel worked heaving
cargo overboard, and, as they went along, the long line of tiny specks
marked their wake.
“Corks,” said Flanagan; “I thought so.”
“They better hurry up,” said the preacher; “the cutter’s rising fast.”
As he spoke, he looked toward the steamer, which was now coming along
in plain view, her hull rising slowly above the horizon, and her funnel
pouring out a black cloud, which hung over the sea.
“They’ll get caught fair enough. Half an hour, an’ the officers’ll be
“Well, they won’t find anything. They’ll never see them corks–she’s
already heading out to get them clear of the wake. When they catch her,
she’ll be an innocent sponger–an’ we’ll—-”
They looked at each other and smiled.
An hour later the _Sea-Horse_ and revenue-cutter were upon the northern
horizon heading into Biscayne, and the keepers were lowering their
It is an unwritten law of the reef that a man may steal as much as he
can from the United States, but he must not touch property belonging to
an individual. A smuggler is not by any means a common thief.
Flanagan’s ideas were different. He held that it was well to steal
whenever the opportunity offered without danger of getting caught; and
upon this principle he had little difficulty in converting his pious
assistant, whose thirst had not been slaked for three full months.
Together they loaded three of the kegs into the boats by simply
pulling up the fishing-lines whose ends were floated by beer-bottle
The lines anchoring the kegs were lying upon the bottom in six fathoms
of water, out of sight, and the small cotton cords were amply strong
enough to raise them. Once getting a grip of the anchoring-lines, they
had no difficulty in hauling the liquor aboard their whale-boats.
The temptation to sample the goods was so strong that they desisted
after the third keg, and made straight away for the lighthouse to enjoy
the plunder. They could come back again and get the rest at their
leisure, for the corks would be in plain view during the calm weather.
What transpired at the lighthouse during the next three days is
somewhat hazy. No light appeared at night, and the Key West steamer
almost ran ashore on her trip south. She reported the light out, and
the tender was despatched to see what had happened.
The day was clear and bright, and the keepers were on the lookout,
seeing the steamer when fully fifteen miles away. Their liquor was
promptly put out of sight, and everything made snug to receive the
While there were evidences of drink in the faces of the men, they
showed a properly kept light, and swore solemnly that they had not left
the tower, and that the light had not failed at all.
They mildly suggested that the captain of the Key steamer may have been
in a highly reprehensible condition to have accused two perfectly
sober and diligent light-keepers of neglect of duty.
The pious one broke forth in prayer and exhortation for the delivery of
deluded pilots from the wiles of the devil, and soon the inspector was
glad to go aboard his vessel to return to Key West.
The _Sea-Horse_, having been searched at Miami and found to be clear
of contraband, was allowed to go her way. She stood out to sea, and
headed down the Hawk’s Channel just as the keepers lit the lantern for
the evening watch. Black Flanagan was just sober enough to do this, and
then turn in to continue his debauch with a pannikin of rum at his bed.
The _Sea-Horse_ anchored near the light and waited for daylight to pick
up the floats.
In the gray of early morning the black mate turned out the crew,
leaving the captain below, and, taking the small boat, put off.
It was calm, and the corks were plainly visible. They were promptly
hauled aboard, and the sunken kegs stowed until the end of the line was
Here the mate found three floats missing, and, being in a suspicious
frame of mind, he looked toward the light, which was still burning,
although the rays of the rising sun were colouring the eastern horizon
a rosy hue.
“They’ve got ’em, all right,” said he. “If we’re quick enough, we might
catch ’em–give way hard.”
The small boat with three men was headed for the tower; and the
_Sea-Horse_, with her captain now thoroughly awake, lay by for
The big mate lost no time gaining the tower. It was broad day now, and
Flanagan had just staggered up the steps into the lantern when the
small boat arrived alongside the piles below.
In his befuddled state Flanagan saw nothing, until, after putting the
light out, he came stumbling back again. He arrived in the lower room
just in time to see the black head and shoulders of the mate emerging
upward through the trap-door in the floor.
The mate was not in a good humour; moreover, he had turned out early
without eating his breakfast, and his great black head and giant arms
seemed supernatural in both vindictiveness and size.
Flanagan thought he had taken too much, and that the horrors were upon
him at last. With a yell, he launched himself upon the seaman, taking
him at a disadvantage, and endeavoured to smash him back into the void
But the mate was strong. He had come to the light expecting trouble.
With a mighty effort he forced the keeper upward, and, amid a fierce
snarling and threshing about, he soon engaged in a desperate struggle.
The “howler,” hearing the uproar, sprang to the rescue, and joined in
the fray just as the sailors, following their trusty mate, climbed
through the door. In less than five minutes the keepers were lashed
fast, and were being lowered down through the door into the waiting
What remained of their spoil was also found and lowered after them; and
in the bright light of the tropic sunrise the _Sea-Horse_ put to sea,
leaving the great tower of the Carysfort light to the westward.
For nearly a week no light was shown from the tower. Strangely enough,
no one reported the light out.
The sixth day a sponger, sailing past at dark, noticed the absence of
light, and went to the tower to see what was wrong.
He found it deserted, and, being a very poor man, he made his boat fast
to the piles and took possession, enjoying the fare and taking care of
the lantern in proper style for several days.
All might have gone well with him for several months, but for the fact
that the supply-steamer was due, and arrived before he thought it time
to make a getaway.
Finding the keepers missing, and no account made for them by the
inhabitant, the officers promptly accused him of murdering them, and
forthwith took him aboard the vessel to be carried ashore and tried. He
was promptly convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to imprisonment
Meanwhile, the _Sea-Horse_, having made the Bahamas, put the thieving
keepers ashore to shift for themselves. After vainly trying to get
passage back to their home, they finally managed to get a small
boat and put to sea, to make the two hundred miles or more to the
They had been absent more than a month, and they arrived at Carysfort
one sunny morning in time to see the two new keepers who had been
appointed in their place take their whale-boat and start fishing along
the reef to the northward of the tower.
Seizing the opportunity, they promptly gained the lighthouse and
climbed into the landing, dropping the trap-door fast behind them.
The new keepers, seeing the strangers in possession of the tower,
hailed them lustily, and started back to inquire their business.
For answer Flanagan leaned over the railing and gazed calmly down upon
them with a quizzical look.
“What d’ye want?” inquired the tall keeper, in response to a hail.
“What are you doing in that light?” asked the new keeper.
“I am the keeper, and when you address me say ‘sir,'” roared the tall
man in stentorian tones. “Tie that boat to the spiles and git away from
here, or I’ll fall on top o’ ye.”
But the new keepers were not made of easy stuff. They gained the lower
landing, and held forth under threats and persuasion for a day and
a half, when the “howler,” getting tired of their proximity, began
attacking them with hot water and other missiles, which he hove or
dropped from the platform above.
The new keepers could not get up, but they determined that the men
above should not get down, and they built a bomb-proof shelter to
protect themselves until help should arrive.
After two days, they finally gave it up and started for Miami, where
they arrived and reported the state of affairs.
The inspector came along, but found the two worthies sober, and
attending strictly to their duties.
They explained how they had been attacked by a huge smuggling vessel
bound for the North, and how, after a desperate fight, they finally had
been overpowered, taken forcibly from their abode in the light, where
they had been attending to their duties, and put ashore in the Bahamas.
They described how, after a tremendous exertion, they had managed to
get back again, only to find two strangers in possession of the tower.
Naturally, they treated them as trespassers and took charge. The light
had been kept regularly ever since, and they had no fault to find with
After listening to their tale, there was nothing to do but to leave
them to their duties, for nothing could be found against them.
Their absence from the light would have enabled the inspector to give
them their discharge, but they could prove they had not left of their
own accord. The forepart of their story would necessarily remain in the
dark, for they would not talk of it, and the crew of the _Sea-Horse_
would rather have it kept quiet. Besides, it would be more than useless
to try to find the vessel from their description. The tender steamed
away for Miami to inform the authorities of the existence of the
“Virtue is usually triumphant,” said the inspector to the judge, who
ordered the release of the convicted prisoner. “But in this case there
seems to be an exception.”
“There are exceptions to every rule,” quoted the judge wisely.
“Light-keepers are rare birds–trouble will probably not happen
again–I would therefore sentence them to life imprisonment in–well, I
reckon there is no worse place than the Carysfort light.”
“I don’t know but what you are right,” said the inspector.