On any given day, you’ll find a cavalcade of sunbathers, day-trippers, avid shell-seekers and fishermen heading to Sanibel. Whether they’re filing in for the purposes of tanning or trade, they all stop for a moment to take in the wonder of the Sanibel Island Lighthouse. “I think everyone who crosses the causeway becomes immediately drawn to it,” Virginia Darby, a board member of the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village, says.
Most lighthouses were built to warn sailors of hazardous conditions, but the Sanibel structure is a landfall light, illuminating the path across San Carlos Bay to the port of Punta Rassa. After the Civil War, the cattle industry in Southwest Florida boomed as agricultural barons, such as Jacob Summerlin, exported cattle to Cuba. The traffic increase justified the need for a light station. A petition was submitted in 1883 to the United States Lighthouse Establishment, and Congress approved $50,000 in needed funding for the project.
Unlike many lighthouses, which are made of brick-and-mortar, the Sanibel lighthouse is crafted from wrought iron, and its skeletal, pyramid-like structure is designed to withstand hurricane-force winds. The pieces were fabricated by Phoenix Ironworks in New Jersey, which also produced parts for the Cape San Blas Lighthouse, located in Port St. Joe. When the work was completed in April 1884, Phoenix Ironworks shipped all the metalwork via the Martha M. Heath, which then sank about two miles from Sanibel’s eastern point. Thankfully, the cargo was recovered, with the exception of two pieces, which were quickly refabricated and sent in time so that Dudley Richardson, the first keeper, could light the Sanibel Lighthouse on August 20, 1884.
Keepers and assistants in the 19th century lived in a pair of identical buildings near the base of the lighthouse. Each of the quarters featured four rooms, coal-fueled fireplaces and a breezeway that separated the kitchen from the other rooms. The residences were fine for a small family, but folks with larger clans, like the lighthouse’s second keeper, Henry Shanahan, probably found the square footage wanting. Shanahan obtained the job in 1892, thanks in large part to his wife. When he first applied for the head keeper position, the lighthouse authorities declined because he was illiterate, Darby explains. But once they learned that his better half could read, Shanahan received the greenlight, and the family of nine settled in. Years later, after his wife passed away, he married local widow Irene Rutland, and her five children joined his brood. Shanahan and Rutland also had a son together. Though elbow room was scarce, the large family worked together to run the lighthouse, with Shanahan’s sons Eugene and Webster and stepson Clarence serving as assistant keepers during his 32 years of service.
The lighthouse and quarters were home to a different set of observers during World War II when the United States Coast Guard assumed control. They built a watchtower on the beach to scan the water for German U-boats. During a 1944 hurricane, Sanibel residents and shipwrecked Cuban fishermen climbed the 105-step spiral staircase to the watch room to safely ride out the storm. After another hurricane—this one in 1947—the Coast Guard deemed the light station unsuitable for its personnel to live in, so they automated the light and moved to downtown Fort Myers. The quarters found new occupants when the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge (now J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge) moved in.
Author and historian Charles LeBuff recalls the first time he saw the lighthouse in 1952 when he went shelling on Bonita Beach with a high school friend. “I happened to look around and off to the right I saw a blinking light,” he recalls. A few days later, they drove to Punta Rassa and took the ferry to Sanibel, where they wandered around the lighthouse and surrounding property. “Little did I know that six years later, I would be moving into the building I was walking under,” he says.
LeBuff joined the staff of the wildlife refuge in 1958 and moved his young family into the assistant keeper’s quarters. “The water was not the best in the world,” he recalls, and the family lived without air conditioning until he purchased a window unit in 1967. Despite the heat and the pesky mosquitoes, his interest in the lighthouse turned into a lifelong passion. He penned several books on the topic, including The Sanibel Island Lighthouse: A Complete History. He and his family eventually moved to more modern housing on Sanibel in 1979, and LeBuff served as a city council member from 1974 to 1980. He also represented the Sanibel lighthouse as a board member of the Florida Lighthouse Association in the 1990s and continues to advocate for the landmark today.
In 2010, ownership of the lighthouse and its surrounding buildings was transferred to the City of Sanibel, and a complete restoration of the lighthouse followed in 2013. It was added to the city’s register of historic sites and structures in 2016 and continues to draw crowds today.
Many enthusiasts say the lighthouse could be so much more. “It’s ripe to become a nautical history museum,” Darby says. She notes that the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village has collections of memorabilia that could be beautifully displayed at the lighthouse. One of those objects is the third replacement of the Fresnel lens, designed by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel, and referred to as the invention that saved a million ships, since it allowed for light to project in a single direction for several miles, even through dense fog. LeBuff would also like to see the living quarters restored and an interpretive history experience developed.
While there are no fundraising efforts for preservation at the moment, LeBuff and Darby remain hopeful about a possible windfall someday. “I would love to see a lighthouse lover with deep pockets come forward,” Darby says. “The bones are there and the knowledge [of what needs to happen] is here.”