In May of 1822, Congress had appropriated money to build a Cape Florida lighthouse, by the end of 1825 the 65-foot brick tower with wood stairs was completed.
On July 23, 1836, a band of Seminole Indians attacked the tower. The lighthouse keeper, John Dubose, was in Key West visiting his family, who, along with others, had removed there earlier in the year when hostilities with the Indians became particularly threatening. Only the assistant keeper Thompson, and his Negro handyman were there when the Seminole arrived in a wave of bullets. Thompson and his handyman barricaded themselves inside the tower and then retreated to the top after the Indians set fire to the door which spread to a 225-gallon tank of oil. Prudently, they brought with them muskets and a keg of powder, but their weapons did little to shield them from the intense heat of the burning stairs and the flying glass from the rupturing windows and lanterns.
As the flames increased, they were forced outside onto the two-foot-wide iron balcony. The Negro handyman was killed in the fight and Thompson, already shot in the foot from the initial onslaught, was wounded again. In this desperate situation, his clothes on fire, Thompson threw the keg of powder down into the flames, hoping to end his misery. The explosion, however, did not kill him, but it did destroy what was left of the burning staircase, which lessened the waves of heat rolling over the semiconscious Thompson, who had collapsed on the balcony.
This blast did more than remove the burning staircase; assuming Thompson was dead, the Indians turned their attention to setting fire to the keeper’s house and then left.
The threat of further Indian attacks prevented reconstruction for more than ten years. As a result, the lighthouse remained out of service until 1847, when it was rebuilt—this time with iron stairs.
However, the excitement was far from over. In 1851, Lieutenant George G. Meade was sent to investigate lighthouses along Florida’s reefs and give recommendations for improvements. Later, Lt. Meade would rise to fame as General Meade, commander of the victorious Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, and Cape Florida Light would rise to 95 feet with a new second-order Fresnel lens as a result of Meade’s design. But on January 19, 1861, Florida seceded from the Union, and one night in August of that year, the lamps and burners were removed from the lighthouse and the center prism of the lens was smashed so it could not be used to help the Union sailors controlling the surrounding waters.
After the Civil War, Cape Florida Light was repaired, but again, its fate was uncertain. In 1878 it was extinguished, this time because the offshore Fowey Rocks Light had replaced it. By the 1920s the coastline had eroded so much that the lighthouse, originally 100 feet from shore, now stood only ten feet from the water.