Sanibel Light House

“Sanibel Stoop” at Sanibel Island Lighthouse 

Traffic and tourists are relatively recent additions to Sanibel Island, as the causeway linking the island to the mainland was not constructed until 1963. Before that time, a ferry transported visitors to the island. Among the more notable ferry passengers were Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, who, during the winter, were next-door neighbors in Fort Myers, located just a short distance up the Caloosahatchee River from Sanibel Island. Long before these innovators arrived on the scene, the first settlement was established on the island in 1833. The small group of settlers petitioned for a lighthouse, but their request was not successful. Neither was their settlement. Due to disease and hardship, the settlement was abandoned in less than five years.
Punta Rassa, located on the mainland across San Carlos Bay from the eastern end of Sanibel Island, soon thereafter became a substantial port as cattle were driven to its docks from across Florida to be loaded onto vessels and transported to Cuba. In 1856, the Lighthouse Board recommended a beacon be established on Sanibel Island to light the port, but no action was taken. After the Civil War, another request for funding for the lighthouse was made in 1878, accompanied by the following justification:
A light on Sanabel [sic] Island would supply a want that has long been felt for a light-house between Key West and Egmont Key. The coastwise trade of Florida is considerable, and increasing. A great number of sailing-vessels, also six steamers, are now plying between Key West and ports on the west coast of Florida; and vessels bound across Florida Bay make their landfall at and take their departure from the southern point of Sanabel Island.
Congress was slow in granting sufficient funds for the project, but all of the needed $50,000 was finally obtained in 1883.
Work on the lighthouse began on the eastern tip of the island in February 1884, while the superstructure was fabricated in the north and shipped to the site. A 162-foot-long, T-head wharf was built on creosoted piles, allowing materials to be landed for the tower and for two square keeper’s dwellings, topped by hipped roofs and supported by iron pilings. Just two miles from Sanibel Island, the ship carrying the iron work from Jersey City for the towers at both Sanibel Island and Cape San Blas sank. Crews aboard the lighthouse tenders Arbutus and Mignonette, assisted by a diver, were able to fish up all of the pieces save two small gallery brackets, which were subsequently fabricated in New Orleans. Consisting of four iron legs arranged in a pyramidal fashion around a cylindrical central column topped by a lantern room, the lighthouse was ready to be lit by keeper Dudley Richardson on August 20, 1884. A third-order Fresnel lens graced the tower at a height of about ninety-eight feet and produced a fixed white light, punctuated every two minutes by a brilliant flash. Just like its twin at Cape San Blas, the central column of Sanibel Island Lighthouse stops about twenty feet from the ground and must be accessed by an external staircase.
Accompanied by his wife and two sons, Henry Shanahan moved to Sanibel Island from Key West in 1888, and two years later became the assistant keeper at the lighthouse. When Keeper Richardson resigned in 1892, Shanahan applied for the position of head keeper. At first, lighthouse authorities refused to promote him since he was illiterate, but, when he threatened to otherwise resign, they gave him the position. After a few years of living at the lighthouse, Shanahan’s wife died, leaving him with their seven children. A widow named Irene Rutland happened to also be living on the island raising her five children. Soon, she and Shanahan married, and then together had a son, making a total of thirteen children.
Needless to say, the family helped run the lighthouse. The Shanahans had a pet deer that would race up and down the beach along with a trained cat that would roll over like a dog. Henry passed away in 1913 after twenty-three years at the lighthouse, but his son Eugene, who had served as his father’s assistant for several years, would return in 1924 to carry on the family’s connection to the lighthouse. Clarence Rutland, one of Henry Shanahan’s stepsons, served as an assistant keeper from a stint in the 1920s and again in the 1930s. Rutland left the following description of the daily routine at the lighthouse:
There were two men at the time. We changed watch each night at 12. It was an oil light then, and we’d take a five-gallon can up full in the afternoon and pump the light and bring the can down empty in the morning.
The light had clockworks with weights on it and you had to keep that flashing to the second. Somebody had to be with it almost every minute. During the day, we had curtains we hung around every one of those prisms.
The Punta Gorda Herald of June 26, 1919 reported that Jesse W. Lee of Fort Myers had killed Richard T. Barry, assistant keeper of Sanibel Island Lighthouse, a few days earlier after Barry had reportedly insulted Lee’s wife. Five months later, a jury in Fort Myers acquitted Lee of murder. Lee admitted to killing the assistant keeper but claimed it was in self-defense. Keeper Barry was forty-five years old and was taken to Key West for burial, where he had earlier served as an engineer.
In 1923, the dwellings were modernized, receiving indoor plumbing and bathrooms, and enclosed porches. That same year, the light was converted from kerosene to acetylene gas. Roughly 670 acres were originally reserved for the lighthouse, but by 1923 the boundary of the station property only extended 1,000 feet west of the lighthouse.
Coastguardsman Bob England came to the lighthouse in 1946 with his wife Mae and infant daughter Margaret. The following year, a hurricane caused severe erosion on the island, and left one of the dwellings standing in a foot of water. Due in part to concerns over erosion, the lighthouse was automated in 1949, and England was assigned to the Fort Myers Coast Guard Station, from where he continued to service Sanibel Island Light along other aids to navigation in the area.
The dwellings were not long empty, as they became home later in 1949 to employees of the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Charles LeBuff lived in the assistant keeper’s cottage for twenty-one years, starting in 1958.
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