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Florida Guide > Other Florida

Sanibel Island, Florida

Traffic and tourists are relatively recent additions to the island, as the causeway linking the island to the mainland was not constructed until 1963. Before that time, a ferry transported visitors to the island. Among the more notable passengers on the ferry were Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, who, during the winter, were next-door neighbors in Fort Myers, located just a short distance up the Caloosahatchee River from Sanibel Island. Long before these innovators arrived on the scene, the first settlement was established on the island in 1833. The small group of settlers petitioned for a lighthouse, but their request was not successful. Neither was their settlement. Due to disease and hardship, the settlement was abandoned in less than five years.

Punta Rassa, located on the mainland across San Carlos Bay from the eastern end of Sanibel Island, soon thereafter became a substantial port as cattle were driven to its docks from across Florida to be loaded onto vessels and transported to Cuba. In 1856, the Lighthouse Board recommended a beacon be established on Sanibel Island to light the port, but no action was taken. After the Civil War, another request for the lighthouse was made in 1878. Congress was slow in granting sufficient funds for the project, but all of the needed $50,000 was finally obtained in 1883.

Work on the lighthouse foundation began on the eastern tip of the island in March of 1884, while the superstructure was fabricated in the north and shipped to the site. Two square keeper’s dwellings with hipped roofs and supported by iron pilings were also built at the station along with a 162-foot wharf. Just two miles from Sanibel Island, the ship carrying the lighthouse material for both Sanibel and Cape San Blas sank. Divers were able to recover almost all of the pieces, and the lighthouse, consisting of four iron legs arranged in a pyramidal fashion around a cylindrical central column, was ready to be lit by keeper Dudley Richardson on August 20, 1884. A third-order Fresnel lens graced the tower at a height of about 98 feet. Just like its twin at Cape San Blas, the central column of the Sanibel Island Lighthouse stops about 10-feet from the ground, and must be accessed by an external staircase.

Accompanied by his wife and two sons, Henry Shanahan moved to Sanibel Island from Key West around 1890, and soon became the assistant keeper at the lighthouse. When Keeper Richardson resigned in 1892, Shanahan applied for the position. At first, the authorities refused to promote him to head keeper since he was illiterate. However, when he threatened to otherwise resign, they gave him the promotion. After several years of living at the lighthouse, Shanahan’s wife died, leaving him with their seven children. A widow happened to also be living on the island raising her five children. Soon, she and Shanahan married, and then together had one more, making a total of thirteen children. Needless to say, the family helped in running the lighthouse, and when Henry passed away in 1913, his son Eugene became a keeper at the lighthouse. Later, one of Henry Shanahan’s stepsons, Clarence Rutland, served as a keeper from 1936 to 1941.

In 1923, the dwellings were modernized receiving indoor plumbing and bathrooms, and enclosed porches. That same year, the light was converted from kerosene to acetylene gas. Roughly 670 acres were originally reserved for the lighthouse, but by 1923 the boundary of the station property only extended 1,000 feet west of the lighthouse.

Coast Guardsman Bob England came to the lighthouse in 1946 with his wife and infant daughter. The following year, a hurricane caused severe erosion on the island, and left one of the dwellings standing in a foot of water. Due in part to concerns over erosion, the lighthouse was automated in 1949.

The dwellings were not long empty, as in 1949 they became home to employees of the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. In 1972, the Coast Guard proposed discontinuing the lighthouse, but feedback provided by local residents and mariners convinced them to keep it lit. The City of Sanibel assumed management of the lighthouse property, except the tower, in 1982. City employees currently live in the dwellings rent-free, and in return help maintain and supervise the property.

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Page added on: 11 November 2006
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