Heading to Key West, Florida on a cruise or road trip? Be sure to make a stop at the Key West Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters Museum. Not only will you get the best views of the entire city from the lighthouse’s observation deck, but you’ll learn lots of fascinating history about the keepers and their families who lived here and kept the lighthouse running.
Key West’s lighthouse is just a 20-minute walk from the cruise port, and is super-close to other landmarks including the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum and the Southernmost Point Buoy.
If you’d rather not walk that far, the Key West Hop-On Hop-Off Trolley Tour has a stop near the cruise port as well as one near the lighthouse.
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A quick history of Key West’s lighthouse
After the U.S. Navy established a base in Key West in 1823, they realized that a lighthouse was necessary for safety. The reefs and shallow waters off the coast of the island presented a hazard to both military and commercial ships in the area. The original 65-foot (20 m) Key West lighthouse was built in 1825. It was destroyed by the Great Havana Hurricane of 1846, and fourteen people inside the lighthouse were killed.
The lighthouse that stands today was built in 1848, but has been upgraded several times over the years. A third-order Fresnel lens and an extension to the tower were added, both of which allowed ships to see the light from a greater distance. Although it’s now obsolete, today the light is about 100 feet (30 m) above sea level.
The Keeper’s Quarters, which now house the museum, were built in 1895. Nineteenth-century lighthouses were fueled by kerosene, hauled to the light by the keeper. Sometime before 1918, the lighthouse was converted to run on piped acetylene gas and a full-time keeper was no longer needed. In 1934, the light was once again converted, this time to run on electrical power.
The end of an era
The U.S. Coast Guard decommissioned the Key West Lighthouse in 1969. The county took over the property, and presently the Key West Arts and Historical Society maintains the lighthouse and other buildings on the property as a museum.
From 1989 until just a few years ago, the lighthouse, keeper’s quarters, as well as the old oil house located on the grounds underwent an intensive restoration project.
If you’re a lighthouse buff, you’ll notice that the Key West Lighthouse seems to be in an unusual location – in the middle of a residential neighborhood and not next to the shore. However, its location is at one of the highest points on the island. Many postcards and books from the 1930s and ’40s make the claim that the lighthouse is the only one in the US that’s located entirely within the city limits of a community.
Should you climb the lighthouse or visit the museum first?
I’ll admit, I was so excited to climb the 88 steps of the lighthouse to take in the view that I didn’t even consider visiting the Keeper’s Quarters Museum first. But I wish I had!
I learned so much about the unusual history of the Key West Lighthouse’s keepers in the museum. Having that knowledge beforehand would have contributed to my enjoyment of the lighthouse. So if you can contain your excitement, I recommend touring the museum before you make the climb.
The museum is located in the old Keeper’s Quarters, a small home with an inviting farmer’s porch wrapping around it. The museum features interactive and multimedia displays that acquaint visitors with the history of the lighthouse and the keepers who lived and worked on the property many years ago.
Women were the primary keepers of the Key West lighthouse
Unusual for the time, the Key West lighthouse was maintained primarily by female keepers throughout its history. In fact, Barbara Mabrity had the longest tenure as keeper, from her husband’s death in 1832 until she was fired from her post in the early 1860s at age 82 (she made anti-Union statements, and Key West was under Union control throughout the Civil War).
The job of a lighthouse keeper was incredibly physical, as keepers were charged with all the tasks associated with keeping the light running and all maintenance of the lighthouse. In addition to hauling fuel, trimming the wicks, and polishing the lenses and glass, keepers would have to repair broken glass, paint and repair the lighthouse, and perform maintenance on the other buildings on the property.
Keepers were responsible for the light 24 hours a day year-round, and rarely took a day off. During hurricanes and gales, when danger to ships was greatest, keepers often risked their lives to keep the light burning.
Many of Key West’s lighthouse keepers also raised their families in the quarters, and cared for livestock and gardens on the property as well.
The museum today displays a mix of artifacts from the lighthouse’s active years, along with furniture and photographs of the keepers and their families. This small museum would be fascinating to anyone interested in maritime history, social history, or just curious about how entire families helped to keep lighthouses running over a century ago.
Climbing to the top of the Key West Lighthouse
The lighthouse’s 88-step iron spiral staircase is a bit tricky to navigate. Two-way traffic, especially on a busy day, can make climbing the narrow stairway difficult. Thankfully there are a few small landing areas to stop and let people pass. On the way up, a number of people remarked that going down is much scarier than going up, and I later agreed!
Although the climb isn’t very strenuous, I’d advise skipping it if you have any issues with balance or aren’t steady on your feet. However, If you’re able to make the climb, you’ll be rewarded with a panoramic view from the observation deck that wraps around the top of the tower.
The section above the observation deck where the lens sits was closed during our visit, but you can peek at it through the open ceiling. The sun was shining on the lens when we reached the top, bathing the landing below it in a rainbow of colors.
A panoramic view of Key West
Out on the wraparound observation deck, we were able to have a birds-eye view of Key West and to the Caribbean Sea. You can see from my photo below just how far the lighthouse stands from the shoreline.
After visiting the Keeper’s Quarters Museum, I thought back to my climb up and down the stairs in the lighthouse. The lighthouse keepers (most of whom would have been wearing long, full skirts) made that climb several times a day hauling fuel for the light. Imagine doing that in a hurricane, with wind whipping around and through the structure!
I left with a new appreciation for the brave men and women who dedicated their lives to keeping ships and their crews safe from harm.
Admission to the Key West Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters Museum
The Key West Lighthouse is located at 938 Whitehead Street, diagonally across the street from the Ernest Hemingway House. It’s open daily from 9:30 AM until 4:30 PM, and is only closed on Christmas.
Admission to access both the lighthouse and museum is $12 for adults, $5 for children age 6 and up, and free for kids under 6. Students with a valid ID are $5, and seniors 62+ are $9. The museum accepts both cash and credit cards.
Have you visited the Key West Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters Museum? Let me know in the comments below!
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