The Burning of the Original Key Biscayne Lighthouse

Miami as a city is only officially 128 years old, but there’s a prehistory to our city’s 1896 founding. That lighthouse at the southern tip of Key Biscayne was built all the way back in 1847. But there was a lighthouse on the site even before that which has always fascinated me.

Back in grade school I had to make a diorama relating to local history. We’d all have to get an old shoebox and some action figures and reconfigure the 1926 hurricane or the perfect 1972 Miami Dolphins football season. One kid depicted the burning of the Key Biscayne lighthouse which always seemed terrifying. He had Native Americans riding their horses around the burning lighthouse while a keeper was stranded at the top.

It seemed like the worst of bad decisions. Either let yourself burn to death, or jump to the bottom and if you survive the fall, get scalped.

The historical records have that lighthouse keeper named as John W. B. Thompson who was accompanied by a slave named Aaron Carter.

On July 23, 1836, the Seminoles attacked. Thompson and Carter locked the lighthouse and ran up the stairs. The men locked atop the lighthouse and the Seminoles then proceeded to shoot at each other. At night the Seminoles set fire to the lighthouse door which in turn led to 225 gallons of lamp oil exploding.

According to his firsthand account, Thompson figured  they were goners. He decided better to die quickly. He threw gunpowder down into the flame which caused an explosion so huge, a ship twelve miles away heard it. While the fire killed Carter, somehow both the lighthouse and Thompson survived. The Seminoles according to Thompson, left the lighthouse alone after the explosion because they figured everyone was dead.

The next day the United States Navy schooner Motto, which heard the explosion a dozen miles away came to the rescue. It took them another day to figure how to get Thompson down from the 65 foot high tower. But they finally did. Thompson survived to tell the tale that inspired fifth grade dioramas a century and a half later.

The cynic in me wonders if the story behind how the lighthouse burned down was all made up. We only have Thompson’s account to rely on. It sounds a lot more heroic that he survived an attack from what he calls “savages” than that an accident blew up the lighthouse.

But that’s the intriguing thing about history, much of it is based on faith.

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David Rolland

David Rolland edits the Jitney blog. He is the author of the novels Yo-Yo & The End of the Century.