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Great Stories: Lighthouses of the South Atlantic

Ocracoke and Blackbeard

Jinx and the Ghost at St. Simons Island/Shrimpers

Cape Florida Lighthouse and the Seminole Indian Attack

The Reef Lights and Shipwrecks of the Florida Keys

Blackbeard and Ocracoke Lighthouse, North Carolina, 1803, 1823

The first Ocracoke lighthouse was built on Shell Island and was destroyed by lightning in 1818.

The oldest operating lighthouse in North Carolina, the present Ocracoke Lighthouse sits on a picturesque, quaint island with beautiful beaches and a charming village. It can only be reached by ferry.

Since its construction, it has always been painted white. In the early days keepers painted it with a whitewash concocted by the Lighthouse Board -- the recipe called for "half a bushel of unslaked lime with boiling water, a peck of salt, half a pound of powdered Spanish whiting, three pounds of ground rice put in boiling water and a pound of clear glue."

Blackbeard

Ocracoke Inlet is the longest-lived inlet known to man on the Outer Banks, existing when John White painted the Banks in 1585 and supposedly for hundreds of years before. One of its most colorful inhabitants was the notorious Edward Teach, or "Blackbeard the Pirate."

  • Ocracoke Island was considered Blackbeard’s headquarters. The Outer Banks provided countless inlets for concealment, and "Teach’s Hole" on Ocracoke was a place pirates often congregated.
  • There are many colorful stories about Blackbeard, including Nancy Roberts’ account of his blockade of Charles Towne in 1918. (Blackbeard and Other Pirates of the Atlantic Coast, p. 3-17)
  • Blackbeard’s reputation was widespread in the colonies, and his appearance contributed to the general fear. He wore a monstrous coal-black beard beginning just under his eyes, covering his entire face. He braided his hair in lots of pigtails, and before attacking a vessel he tucked lighted fuse cords under the brim of his hat, which he then used to ignite powder in cannons. Dipped in saltpeter and lime water, the cords burned slowly, encircling his head with curling wisps of smoke. Passengers of ships he boarded often surrendered immediately after just seeing him.
  • In November of 1718, Governor Spotswood of Virginia decided to have Blackbeard captured to increase his own image. He hired two armed sloops, the Jane and The Ranger under the command of Lieutenant Robert Maynard to go after him on November 17, 1718. Blackbeard’s ship, The Adventure, was anchored on the southern tip of Ocracoke Island. Blackbeard attempted to use the topography of the island to help him, and lured the two approaching ships to follow him through a narrow channel leading to the beach. The two sloops grounded themselves on a hidden sand bar. There seem to be direct accounts of the encounter:

    Teach roared: "Damn you for villains, who are you? And from whence come you?""You can see from our colors we are no pirates," Maynard shouted back.

    "Send your boat on board so that I may see who you are," ordered Blackbeard.

    "I cannot spare my boat, but I will come aboard you as soon as I can with my sloop," came back Maynard.

    "Damnation seize my soul if I give you mercy or take any from you!" from Blackbeard.

    Maynard retorted, "I expect no mercy from you. Nor shall I give any!"

    Pretty bold considering he was stuck on the sand bar. But he threw water barrels overboard and freed the ships. There was gunfire and The Adventure got next to the sloop.

    The pirates came aboard and there was fierce hand-to-hand combat. Blackbeard and Maynard confronted each other; each pulled a pistol and fired. Blackbeard’s shot missed. Maynard’s shot struck Blackbeard but it didn’t fell him. They started fighting with swords and Blackbeard broke off Maynard’s blade.

    As Blackbeard was about to make the kill, a British seaman struck Blackbeard from the rear. It took a lot to get him down. He suffered 5 pistol shots and 20 wounds before he died.

    Maynard ordered Blackbeard’s head severed from his body and suspended from the bow of his sloop. His body was thrown overboard and legend has it that the headless body swam around the sloop three times before it sank!

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The Ghost of St. Simons Island Lighthouse, St. Simons Island, Georgia, ca. 1810 and 1872

Active Aid to Navigation; owned by United States Coast Guard; optic maintained by the local Coast Guard Auxiliary; dwelling and grounds leased to Coastal Georgia Historical Society.

The story goes that in 1880 the keeper and assistant keeper were fighting either over chickens or "chicks" and the assistant keeper murdered his boss. Succeeding residents claimed to hear the footsteps of the slain keeper on the stairs, going to service his light and descending to the kitchen. And the smell of kerosene permeated the stairwell after each ghostly visit.

One keeper was particularly frightened by the ghost. Carl Svendsen and his family came to tend the light around the turn of the century. Their dog Jinx encountered the "spirit" soon after moving in and didn’t like it at all. Mrs. Svendsen set dinner on the table each evening as she’d hear her husband’s footsteps coming down the tower. One night she heard the footsteps and set out the food, but when the kitchen door swung open the keeper wasn’t there. As she looked through the empty doorway she felt a cold draft pass into the room. Jinx, who had been sleeping, rose and bristled. His eyes followed something across the room, and when it neared his spot, he backed up, growling. Mrs. Svendsen rushed up to the tower to tell her husband, and they agreed the ghost had appeared. This incident happened many times during their 28-year tenure, and Jinx would withdraw in the same way. (see Bibliography: DeWire, Guardians of the Lights, p. 234-7)

Son of this keeper, Carl Olaf Svendsen, Jr. celebrated his 90th birthday in July, 1997, with a party at the lighthouse. He was brought up in the lighthouse with his two sisters. The upstairs of the lighthouse is interpreted as it looked when they lived there. He has told all the stories of growing up there.

History of Lighthouse

  • First lighthouse built in 1807-1810 by James Gould, who became its first keeper in 1811. Original lighthouse burned by departing Confederate soldiers in 1862. Rebuilt about 30’ away in 1872. Gould family descendants still reside on the island.
  • Architecture of the keeper’s dwelling is eclectic -- both Victorian and Georgian influences. Built by George Cluskey, a noted architect of the Greek Revival school. The building is quite handsome, sitting in front of the tower.
  • Shrimpers -- shrimp boats are beautiful historic structures and many families have been shrimpers for generations.
  • Liberty ship production in World War II. BMW processing plant on mainland. Car ships come by the lighthouse all the time. Three toots are the traditional greeting. Bridge being built.

The Golden Isles refers to St. Simons Island, Jekyll Island and Sea Island, all accessible by car and several other islands including Sapelo Island and Blackbeard Island, where pirate Edward Teach is said to have hidden his loot. Jekyll Island, once the home of East Coast millionaires, is now one of Georgia’s major resort areas. In the historic area, a cluster of late 19th Century "cottages" is a reminder of the era when these millionaires belonged to the Jekyll Island Club. Sea Island and Sapelo Island offer other attractions. Contact: Golden Isles Visitor Center: 912-265-0620

Cape Florida Light and the Seminole Indian Attack, Key Biscayne, Florida, 1825

Owned by State of Florida; managed by Department of Natural Resources. Contact: Bill Baggs State Recreation Area, 1200 South Crandon Boulevard, Key Biscayne.

The first Cape Florida lighthouse was built in 1825. In December 1835 the Second Seminole War broke out after a U.S. Army unit marching north was massacred by Seminoles.

A few months later, keeper William Cooley lost his wife and children during an Indian raid. He left the lighthouse. Several months after that, July 23, 1836, the new keeper, John Thompson, and his assistant were attacked by Seminole rifle fire. Thompson tried to keep the Indians at bay but by nightfall they reached the base of the lighthouse and set fire to the entrance, the doors and windows. Breaking oil cans fed the fire, which soon covered the entire floor.

The keeper and assistant ran up the tower stairs, which caught fire from the bottom up. They were desperate since they were caught on the iron tower floor, which was burning hot and thought they were going to burn to death. The keeper threw down gun powder. He expected to cause an explosion, which would put a quick end to his life. The Indians thought the explosion killed him and they burned down the keeper’s dwelling and took off in his sloop.

The explosion actually put out the fire. Unfortunately, the assistant keeper who was shot, was either roasted alive or died from his wounds. The keeper, with parts of his feet burned or shot off and suffering other burns, spent an agonizing 12 hours naked on the watch tower, eaten by mosquitoes and roasting under the burning sun. Thompson later described his condition: "I was now almost as bad off as before, a burning fever on me, my feet shot to pieces, no clothes to cover me, nothing to eat or drink, a hot sun overhead, a dead man by my side, no friend near or any to expect, and placed between 70 and 80 feet from the earth with no chance of getting down."

He was finally rescued by a passing naval vessel -- thought to be either the The Concord or The Motto. The sailors heard the explosion and came to see what the problem was. They found Thompson on the tower, but couldn’t get up the burnt stairway. To rescue him, they fired a line from a musket that snagged the lantern gallery and hoisted a tail block for Thompson to secure. Then two crewmen scaled the tower and lowered the keeper on a makeshift litter. Thompson did recover, though somewhat crippled. (see Bibliography: Kochel; DeWire, Guide to Florida Lighthouses, p. 49-51. Roberts, p. 60-61)

In later years, the keepers had good relationships with the Seminoles. In one story, a Seminole Indian came to trade with a keeper, but arrived late at night. The next morning, the wife found him asleep in bed with one of her children!

The tower was rebuilt in 1846. In 1861, a Confederate raiding party put the lighthouse out of commission. The light was ultimately extinguished in 1878, when it was replaced by the more powerful beacon of the Fowey Rocks Lighthouse.

The light was relit in 1978 - a century after it was extinguished. July 27, 1996, during the Miami Centennial, marked the completion of a $1.5 million restoration to the tower and keeper’s dwelling. The grand opening was scheduled to take place February 28, 1998. It is one of Florida’s earliest commissioned lighthouses, and remains the oldest standing structure in South Florida.

The lighthouse sits in Bill Baggs Cape Florida Recreation area -- 406-acre tropical park and excellent beach located next to downtown Miami.

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Shipwrecks and the Reef Lights of the Florida Keys

  • Carysfort Reef Lighthouse - 1852
  • Fowey Rocks Lighthouse - 1878
  • Sand Key Lighthouse - 1853
  • Sombrero Key Lighthouse - 1858
  • Alligator Reef Lighthouse - 1873
  • American Shoal - 1880
  • Pulaski Shoal Lighthouse
  • Rebecca Shoal Lighthouse
  • Cosgrove Shoal Lighthouse - 1935
  • Smith Shoal Lighthouse - 1933
  • Pacific Reef Lighthouse - 1921
  • Molasses Reef Lighthouse -1921
  • Tennessee Reef Lighthouse - 1933

Bruce Roberts (p. 58-59) cites dozens of shipwrecks of Spanish treasure ships dating back to the 17th Century, killing thousands of sailors and causing millions in losses. He also explains how the volume of shipping increased around the Florida panhandle in the early 19th Century as farm products from the west were carried to New Orleans and then shipped around Florida and then up the East Coast or to Europe, since the Appalachian Mountain provided a land obstacle. To protect ships, a series of reef lights were built in the waters along the Florida Keys from the 1850s to 1890s and in the 1930s. These reef lights were built using techniques adapted from English and earlier U.S. screwpiles. These octagonal structures were built of cast-iron, with nine iron legs anchored to the reef by huge flanged feet inserted through stabilizing disks. The reef lights have held up well and remain in service today, with only slight changes to automate their functions. Only the Rebecca Shoal has needed rebuilding. The lights are easily seen by travelers on U.S. 1 driving from Miami down the Keys.

Carysfort Reef: 1852: First reef light; General George Meade (who later headed Union troops in the Civil War and won the battle of Gettysburg) was sent to supervise the construction. For years, keepers believed a ghost resided there, thought to be the spirit of Captain Johnson, an early keeper who had sinned in life and died tragically. It is said that he was unable to secure a place in heaven and was doomed to inhabit the lighthouse. Keepers at night would hear eerie human-like groans that would gain in volume, culminating in a high-pitched scream. Charles Brookfield solved this mystery after spending the night at the lighthouse and being spooked by these sounds. He figured out that they came from the metal contracting rapidly at night. Still, keepers preferred the Captain Johnson theory and kept a bible out in the kitchen. (See Bibliography: DeWire, Guardians of the Lights, p 239-42) Pennekamp Coral Reef Institute is planning to convert the keeper’s quarters into a marine laboratory.

Sand Key Reef Light: Built in 1853 after the original tower built in 1827 collapsed in the hurricane of 1846, tragically killing keeper Roberta Flaherty and her five children. The tower was washed away during the storm, and the six bodies were never found. The Reef now stands in five feet of water; the island on which it stood washed away.

Fowey Rocks Light: Has the strongest beacon, which shines 17 miles out to sea. This is the lighthouse which put Cape Florida Light out of business.

Alligator Reef Light: Most expensive reef light (Conflicting reports say it cost $185,000 (Roberts) and $83,000 (See Bibliography: DeWire) in 1873. The reef was named for a ship that ran aground after a battle with pirates. The crew blew up the ship rather than succumb to the pirates.

American Shoal Lighthouse: Manned for a brief time during the 1980 Mariel Boat Life to monitor the exodus of Cuban refugees and the flow of illegal temporary.

Sombrero Key: At 142 feet, it is the highest reef light.

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