Miami's Oldest Landmark
by tom austin
The lighthouse’s decommissioned tower and keeper’s cottage, circa 1890
History is hard on Miami, which is forever in a rush to tear itself down and start over from scratch. It’s almost as if any signposts of the past must be obliterated before we tumble headlong into the bright, elusive future. By some miracle, the circa-1825 Cape Florida lighthouse, Miami’s oldest and most beautiful landmark, is still standing, still defining the tropical allure of pioneer Miami.
Set in the 442-acre Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on the southern tip of Key Biscayne, the 95-foot-tall white-brick tower is a portal to a rough-and-tumble era, when lighthouses, not condos, lit the Florida coast. Cape Florida today has become a beautiful, ordered place, a refuge that’s a long way from its violent past as a battleground and haven for smugglers, salvagers, and general reprobates.
Before the lighthouse—and for years thereafter—a chief occupation in Miami was being a pirate; the lazy simply waited for ships to run aground off Key Biscayne. In 1836, the Seminole tribe—in what was then a fierce, pre-casino epoch—set fire to the lighthouse. For almost 11 years, the darkened tip of Key Biscayne was a staging area for runaway slaves headed to the Bahamas. In 1861, Confederate soldiers, in an effort to stymie the Union Navy, destroyed the lighthouse lamp.
A century later, in the 1960s, the Cape Florida lighthouse almost succumbed to Florida’s most common unnatural disaster: condominium developers. The family that owned Cape Florida—a plot marked by the graceful remnants of the coconut plantation that once covered Key Biscayne—announced its intention to sell the land for development.
At that point, Bill Baggs, the late editor of the now defunct Miami News from 1957 to 1969, stepped in. He pushed for the conservation of the raw land in his daily column and cajoled state officials to pony up money to buy the property for a public park. Baggs prevailed, being a born scrapper who fought many needed battles: On the civil rights front, he was asked by President John F. Kennedy to help get Martin Luther King, Jr., out of jail; a few years later, on a mission for the US State Department, he traveled to North Vietnam to begin negotiations for the Paris Peace Talks, and was subsequently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
One of the last true Miami gentlemen, Baggs died at the age of 46. In 1974, then-Florida Governor Reubin Askew unveiled a plaque bearing the park’s new name, Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park (formerly the Cape Florida State Park). Earlier this year, HistoryMiami put on an exhibition entitled “Key Biscayne: Island of Shifting Sands,” and the Cape Florida lighthouse was an integral part of that particular Florida story.
Cape Florida and its lighthouse are an eternal gift to Miami, a symbol of our capacity to do some good once in a while. Until the end of his life, Baggs would fish off the area’s rock wall, no doubt looking over that great big, beautiful lighthouse and recalling his own words in the Miami News: “The people also need parks, room to run and recline, to listen to the soft drawl of the sea.”
photography by ralph munroe