Gulf Coast Lighthouses
Fort Jefferson, Florida
Issue Date: July 23, 2009
City: Biloxi, MS
Sent to survey the newly acquired cluster of reefs, islands, and shoals known as the Florida Keys, U.S. Navy Commander Matthew C. Perry recommended the construction of a lighthouse on Garden Key. Congress approved funding, and a 65-foot conical brick tower was completed in 1826.
The lighthouse was important for vessels traveling from the Mississippi River and Florida’s west coast, because they had to go around the islands before sailing up the eastern seaboard.
The U.S. government also recognized the strategic military value of the region – the nation that controlled it would also control navigation in the Gulf of Mexico. To safeguard American interests, work began at Fort Jefferson on Garden Key in 1846. Known as the “Gibraltar of the Gulf,” the fort enclosed most of the island’s 16 acres and its lighthouse.
The Fort Jefferson lighthouse was spared from any direct action during periods of war. However, over 2,200 prisoners were held within its walls, many during the Civil War. The compound also held four men convicted in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Some years later, the USS Maine was part of a squadron stationed at Garden Key Island when it exploded and sank in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, igniting the Spanish-American War.