In 1888, the U.S. Congress allocated $35,000 for the U.S. Lighthouse Service to build a lighthouse on Boca Grande Pass, the deepest natural port in the state. The Port Boca Grande Lighthouse was lit December 31, 1890. The light was used to mark Boca Grande Pass, the entrance to Charlotte Harbor (Coast Guard). A second light, the Charlotte Harbor Light, stood within Charlotte Harbor, and a third, Mangrove Point Light, was at the north end of the harbor marking the port of Punta Gorda (Hairr 87-90).
The Port Boca Grande Light is an iron screw pile design with a wood frame. It originally had a 3 ½ order Fresnel lens. The lens is in an octagonal cupola on the peak of the roof. The light itself is integrated into the keeper’s house (Boca Grande). Today, a 5th order drum lens has taken the place of the original lens.
Port Boca Grande
In 1912 the phosphate facility at Port Boca Grande was operational, and ships from around the world came to the island to load phosphate (Hoeckel 28). The phosphate was not shipped in containers; instead it was poured directly into the holds of the ships. As they moved to later ports, cargo was placed on top of the bed of phosphate (Hoeckel 37).
The Keepers of the Light
The lighthouse had a succession of keepers. They were:
Frances McNulty (1890-1894)
William Lester (1894-1923)
Charles Henry Williams (1923-1932)
Osmund McKinney (1932-1940)
Cody McKeithen (1941-1951)
U.S. Coast Guard
In 1939, the U.S. Coast Guard took over operation of lighthouses from the U.S. Lighthouse Service, and all keepers after that time were members of the USCG. In the case of the Port Boca Grande Light, there was also an Assistant Keeper. The Assistant lived in the Assistant Keeper’s house, the building next door to the lighthouse (Trip Through Time).
The Rear Range Light
In 1932, the Gasparilla Island Rear Range Light came into operation on Gasparilla Island. Built in 1885 as the Delaware Breakwater Rear Range Light, it was dismantled in 1921 and shipped to Miami. In 1927 it was shipped to Gasparilla Island and reassembled. It was relit in 1932, and had a companion light, the Front Range Light, in the Gulf of Mexico off of Gasparilla Island. When the two lights lined up, a ship’s navigator knew it was time to turn to enter Boca Grande Pass (Hoeckel 18). It was later decommissioned as a rear range light due to the removal of the Front Range light. It was recomissioned as the Gasparilla Island Light and still used as a navigational tool today. The U.S. Coast Guard maintains the lamp.
During WWII, the lighthouse was used to watch for German U-boats. There was a submarine watch tower to the west of the light (WWII). The keeper, Cody McKeithen, kept in touch with the Coast Guard by radio. The radio was kept on the second floor of the lighthouse.
The port was used as a safe harbor at night, with up to 30 ships mooring at the dock to avoid German subs (WWII). While it was not reported at the time, as many as 189 merchant and military ships were sunk by subs in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean in 1942, according to the Merchant Marine.
Automation and Abandonment
In 1956 the light was automated, and the era of lighthouse keepers on Gasparilla Island came to an end.
In 1966 the light was deactivated, and by 1968 was essentially abandoned by the Coast Guard (Boca Grande). It fell into disrepair. There was severe erosion of the beach, and by the 1970s the screw piles were exposed. The light began to tilt, and soon was in danger of falling into the pass. In 1972 the light and the land around it were transferred to Lee County. In 1982, when FPL had to dredge the basin of the oil dock next to the lighthouse, they placed the sand around the light, shoring it up. FPL also had two rock groins built in front of the light to help retain the sand (Trip Through Time).
The lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, and restoration work began in 1985. The restoration, a collaboration of several island groups, was finished in 1986. The new lens was lit, and the Port Boca Grande Light was recommissioned by the Coast Guard as an aid to navigation (Trip Through Time). The lamp room is still under the care of the U.S. Coast Guard.
In 1988 the lighthouse and the land around it was transferred to the state of Florida, and today the light is the centerpiece to Gasparilla Island State Park. A museum was built inside the lighthouse and opened in 1999 (Trip Through Time). It is one of only six lighthouses in Florida to be open to the public, and the only one on the west coast. Barrier Island Parks Society, a nonprofit Citizen Support Organization, manages and operates the museum (Society). In 2007, the lighthouse won the “Best Looking Lighthouse” award from Florida Monthly Magazine.
Built in 1890
3 ½ order Fresnel lens (original), 5th order drum lens (current)
44’ focal plane
Visible for 12 miles
Automated in 1950
Deactivated in 1966
Reactivated in 1986
Museum opened in 1999
Managed and operated by Barrier Island Parks Society, a nonprofit that supports local state parks.
“Boca Grande.” Coast Guard Lighthouses. 06 June 08. http://www.uscg.mil/history/weblighthouses/LHFL.asp
The Boca Grande Lighthouse: A Trip through Time. Exhibit Panel. 1998. Port Boca Grande Light and Museum.
Hairr, John. Images of America: Florida Lighthouses. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 1999.
Hoeckel, Marilyn and Theodore B. VanItallie. Images of America: Boca Grande. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2000.
“The Keepers of the Light.” Life on the South End. 1998. Port Boca Grande Light and Museum.
WWII, the Causeway and the Modern Era. 1998. Port Boca Grande Light and Museum.