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Epic history behind Florida lighthouse

AAP logoAAP 17/08/2016 Emilio J. Lopez.

The history of the lighthouse on Key Biscayne, an island off the coast of Miami, is an epic tale of wars between the Seminole Indians and US settlers, the devastation of hurricanes, raids by fearsome pirates and the romanticism of those who today look upon lighthouses as the early guardians of ships at sea.

Solid brick with whitewashed walls, the 29-metre-tall structure stands firm on the subtropical coastline of southeast Key Biscayne (the original Spanish name was Cayo Vizcaino), surrounded by the dense vegetation of coconut palms, ficus trees and native plants like seagrapes and mangroves.

Cape Florida Light - its official name - has become a kind of giant sentinel on this popular beach crowded every weekend with many families and their many children who couldn't imagine playing in the sand and swimming in the ocean without the silent presence of that lighthouse tower.

The 170-year-old building is in a perfect state of preservation. It is one of Florida's 30 lighthouses and the second oldest in the state, though the original tower built in 1825 was not as tall as it is today, and had to be restored after it was set on fire.

As the story goes, one of the many skirmishes between the Seminole Indian tribe and US forces, almost always sparked by treaties that cheated Indians into moving away from desirable territories, broke out in July 1836.

The Indians' attack on the lighthouse was fierce, and the master of the lighthouse, John Thompson, and a black maintenance man, Aaron Carter, could do no more than dig in with their weapons high up in the tower.

But when the Seminoles set fire to the door and stairway and the flames and heat surged nearer, the two had no alternative but to go out on the balcony, where Carter was shot and killed and Thompson was critically wounded but survived.

"The history of Miami is inconceivable without this lighthouse, the oldest in South Florida, which, with its spiral staircase of 109 iron steps, is no longer in operation but is in a perfect state of repair," Jorge Bustamante, the guide at the lighthouse, told EFE.

While Cape Florida Light suffered enormous damage during the Second Seminole War and stopped operating in 1875, the devastation of Hurricane Andrew in August 1992, destroyed a large part of the beautiful natural surroundings while putting it out of operation and in need of costly repairs.

The lighthouse is a lookout like few on the coast of South Florida. From the island of Key Biscayne it provides a beautiful view of a long beach dotted with umbrellas, beach huts and bathers, and a deep sea undoubtedly watched every day by the eight lighthousekeepers who lived there between 1825 and 1878.

The same coasts and reefs were for centuries the refuge and battleground of pirates, including the feared Black Caesar, a black corsair who in the early 18th century found on these small islands a perfect place to hide out after his raids, and where, legend has it, he buried some of his massive plunder.

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