The Long Blue Line: Barbara Mabrity – Long-time lighthouse keeper and hurricane heroine

Written by William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area historian

Coast Guard Cutter Barbara Mabrity

Coast Guard Cutter Barbara Mabrity, which carries forward the namesake of Lighthouse Keeper Barbara Mabrity. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The United States Coast Guard and its predecessor agencies have welcomed the service of many determined and courageous women. One of those women was Lighthouse Keeper Barbara Mabrity of Key West, Florida.

In 1822, Florida became a U.S. territory and, the same year, the Federal Government took possession of the strategically important island of Key West. A naval base was established there in 1823 and construction of a lighthouse by 1825. The lighthouse began operation in 1826 under the direction of former coast pilot Michael Mabrity, with his wife Barbara serving as his assistant. Just six years later, Michael died of yellow fever, leaving Barbara to raise their six children.

After her husband’s death, Barbara received appointment as Key West Light’s keeper with responsibility for the lighthouse and its operation. This meant around-the-clock supervision of the facility, including cleaning, maintaining and refueling the lighthouse’s fifteen whale-oil-fueled lamps and associated reflectors. Her daily routine included climbing the narrow spiraling staircase to the lantern room and lighting the fifteen lamps at nightfall and in low-visibility weather. Each morning, she ascended the stairs again to extinguish all fifteen lamps and clean them. This process required her to disassemble each lantern and clean it, including its glass chimney. She also polished the light’s fifteen silvered reflectors, covered them with a cotton cowl and filtered the whale oil from each lantern into a clean container. Lastly, she polished all the light’s brass appurtenances and reset each lantern wick in preparation for the next lighting.

Key West and its inhabitants were subject to many external threats, including man-made and natural ones. In addition to epidemics, such as yellow fever, Indian attacks against the settlement were an ever-present danger in the 1830s and 1840s. This threat prompted local authorities to build a road from town to the lighthouse for better access. By 1845, Federal authorities began building Fort Zachary Taylor near the lighthouse, which would provide far greater protection from Indian attacks. The greatest threat to Key West, however, was the seasonal danger from tropical storms that could wipe out the low-lying town and local Federal installations. Despite responsibility for her children, Mabrity kept the light through the vicious hurricanes that struck Key West in 1835, 1841 and 1842.

It was the Great Havana Hurricane of 1846, which nearly took the life of this courageous woman. In the evening of October 10, winds rose and large seas broke over the island’s shoreline. By the next day, the storm’s full fury blasted the low-lying island. Considered a Category 5 hurricane by today’s standards, the 1846 storm’s high winds and heavy seas dismasted, capsized or sank the vessels anchored in Key West Harbor and flattened or dis-roofed nearly all of Key West’s 600 homes. Mabrity and several residents sought shelter in the brick lighthouse. However, the powerful storm surge rushed over the island causing severe damage to Fort Taylor, destroying the light keeper’s quarters and washing out the lighthouse’s foundation. Mabrity escaped before the lighthouse toppled over, but at least a dozen victims were trapped and killed when the structure collapsed.

An engraving showing devastation wrought on Havana by the Great Havana Hurricane of 1846. Photo courtesy of the Key West Historical Association.

An engraving showing devastation wrought on Havana by the Great Havana Hurricane of 1846. Photo courtesy of the Key West Historical Association.

Many reports after the storm indicated that Mabrity lost her children in the tragedy, but subsequent research indicates that these claims were mistaken. Nevertheless, Mabrity had lost virtually everything else to the storm and Key West was devastated, with scores of the inhabitants injured, missing or dead. Revenue cutter officer William Pease, whose own ship was lost in the storm, reported that “The lighthouses at Key West and Sand Key washed away, and Key West is in ruins. A white sand beach covers the spot where Key West Lighthouse stood.”

Despite her losses, Barbara Mabrity continued to serve. In the aftermath of the storm, workers installed a temporary 30-foot beacon to substitute for the light. By 1847, the Federal Government purchased an acre on the highest ground in Key West and began construction of a new lighthouse and keeper’s quarters, completing the buildings the next year. In 1854, the Lighthouse Service allowed Mabrity to hire an assistant to help tend the light and buoys placed in the harbor. By this time, she was 72 years old and had kept the Key West Light for nearly 30 years.

In early 1861, Florida seceded from the Union. Key West, however, was an island cut-off from the mainland’s affairs and it relied heavily on Federal institutions, such as the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, Revenue Cutter Service, Customs Service and Lighthouse Service. Business and civic affairs continued on a wartime footing and Mabrity faithfully kept the light even though the Confederates had extinguished the rest of Florida’s lighthouses. By this time, Mabrity was nearly 80 years old.

During the Civil War, Mabrity’s job was a daunting one, requiring her to oversee the new keeper’s quarters, the larger lighthouse and associated outbuildings, as well as certain aids to navigation around Key West. In 1862, she was accused of harboring Southern sympathies. She denied this charge, a denial supported by her record of dedicated Federal service during the war and in peacetime. But, by the later stages of the war, she was in her eighties, an age when many of her male counterparts had either retired or died and the Service encouraged her to retire. Mabrity refused to quit; however, in 1864, she had reached the age of 82 and agreed that the time had come to retire. Physically spent, she died just three years later having served the Key West Light for nearly 40 years.

Ironically, in 1870, John Carroll, the husband of Barbara Mabrity’s granddaughter, became keeper of Key West Lighthouse. From that year until the light was automated in 1915, Mabrity’s descendants by blood or marriage kept the Key West Light. Mabrity or someone from her family kept the Key West Light for 82 of its 89 years of manned operation. And, for most of the Mabrity years, a female family member oversaw operation of the light.

Mabrity kept the light through fair weather and foul, including devastating hurricanes. She served as Key West Lighthouse’s keeper for nearly forty years, much longer than did any other Key West keeper. No painting or picture of Mabrity has been located. However, in 1999, she was honored as the namesake of a U.S. Coast Guard 175-foot Keeper-Class buoy tender based out of Mobile, Alabama. Barbara Mabrity was a member of the long blue line and an unflinching example of devotion to duty.

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