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Lighthouse open on weekend

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By Kellie Parkin

Seahorse Key gets its name from the shape of the island, but its rich history is complex: a detention camp for displaced Seminole Indians, an outpost with a lighthouse built in 1854 to guide ships into the port of Cedar Key and a prison during the Civil War.

During the Second Seminole War, General Zachary Taylor requested that the Cedar Keys “be reserved for military purposes. The outer key (Seahorse Key) of the group the Government should retain, as on it will no doubt be erected, at some future time, a lighthouse for the benefit of vessels trading to the Suwannee River,” he wrote.

A budget of $12,000 combined with an executive order signed by Millard Fillmore Sept. 2, 1851, made it possible for construction of the lighthouse which was put into service August 1, 1854.

Opportunities to visit The Cedar Keys Lighthouse on Seahorse Key are rare, occurring only two times each year.

As part of National Wildlife Refuge Week, people who would like to see for themselves and learn more about the light station built in 1854 can visit this weekend Saturday and Sunday Oct. 17-18 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The historic island remains closed to the public throughout the year to protect critical bird habitat. Seahorse Key is one of 13 islands in the Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge.

“Every refuge has a purpose,” said CKNWR Manager John Kasbohm. “Cedar Key was created primarily for birds.” Where populations once numbered in the 200,000 range 30 years ago, birds now number around 20,000 throughout the Refuge, he said. “There has been a steady decline.”

Although wildlife is the NWR’s main purpose, they soon hope to add historical renovations to their purview. The original 1854 lighthouse is in need of repair – the foundation has extreme settling, there is cracking in the brick and the floor is rotting in places. “The first step is a structural assessment,” Kasbohm said.

“Our mission is wildlife, not historical structures,” he said with a smile. “We’ll need some help – and it will come down to a lot of fundraising.”

Other than this weekend, the first Saturday in July is the only other opportunity for the public to witness firsthand the beauty and history of the island.

Tours of the lighthouse and the cemetery where two Union soldiers and several lighthouse keepers are buried will be conducted by the Florida Lighthouse Association. The USS Fort Patrick Henry Re-enactors will also be on hand to share the Civil War history of the key and the lighthouse. The light was extinguished for the last time in 1915.

“Seahorse Key and its light station became part of the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge in 1939.  Beginning in 1952, the lighthouse was leased to the University of Florida as a marine laboratory for use in research and education, and still serves that purpose today,” according to the CKNWR.

Visitors must arrange their own transportation to Seahorse Key. Group tours will be available at the Cedar Key Marina.

For more information about the refuge or the Lighthouse open house contact the Refuge at (352) 493-0238.