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City accepts ownership of Sanibel Lighthouse

By Staff | Apr 27, 2010

Marcilynn Burke, second from left, Deputy Director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management delivers the property patent for the Sanibel Lighthouse and land to Mayor Kevin Ruane last Wednesday. Also pictured, from left, is Jim Jennings, Mick Denham, Sam Bailey and Marty Harrity.

After 125 years, the Sanibel Lighthouse finally has a home.

Last Wednesday morning, officials from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management handed over the property patent to the historic structure and surrounding 44.7 acres of land to the City of Sanibel during a 35-minute ceremony staged at the base of the island icon.

“Whatever way you look at this, it’s a great day for Sanibel,” said Mayor Kevin Ruane prior to delivering his opening remarks to a crowd of more than 100. “When you look back at the history of the lighthouse, there were some challenges to building it. The ship that was delivering supplies to build it here sank. It’s been through several major hurricanes. It was used during World War II to look out for German boats. That’s a lot of history.”

On Feb. 5, the city received a letter from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, which stated that the land on which the lighthouse sits has been classified suitable for use under the Recreation and Public Purposes Act of 1926. As a result, they offered the City of Sanibel to purchase the lighthouse and property for $10 per acre, or a total cost of $447.70.

Among the conditions required of the city is to have a licensed archaeologist present during any an all ground-disturbing activities, along with requiring revenue generated through usage fees or lease of the facility to be utilized in the management and maintenance of the property.

More than 100 people attended the patent transfer ceremony at the foot of the Sanibel Lighthouse last week.

On April 21, members of the City Council, local dignitaries, citizens, representatives of the U.S. Armed Forces and the Bureau of Land Management gathered on the beach in front of the 98-foot tall lighthouse to share their thoughts on acquiring the property as well as their experiences related to the structure.

“This means an awful lot to the island and it means an awful lot to me,” said Sam Bailey, leaders of the city’s Historic Preservation Committee whose family has lived on the island since the latter part of the 19th century. “I don’t think that people know how much the lighthouse did back in the old days. This lighthouse has been a great part of the island for many, many years.”

Bailey told stories about playing on the beach during his youth, along with his brothers, “because the mosquitoes weren’t as bad down here.” He also talked about taking loggerhead turtle rides and playing games inside the lighthouse itself.

“We used to have races running up the steps to the top,” he said before adding with a chuckle, “Nowadays, I couldn’t make it up there if you gave me an hour!”

Sanibel’s early settlers petitioned to have a lighthouse built on the east end of the island back in 1833. A second request, from the Lighthouse Board, was made in 1856 to illuminate the cattle shipping port of Punta Rassa. Following a third request to build the structure in 1878, Congress approved $50,000 for a lighthouse to be constructed.

Sam Bailey shared stories about his childhood and playing inside and around the historic lighthouse.

Work on the lighthouse started in 1884. Its completion was delayed due to the sinking of a ship containing the main superstructure. Divers had to retrieve the sunken material.

The Sanibel Lighthouse, which was used as a lookout for German U-Boats during World War II, became automated in 1947 and was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1974. The city assumed management of the property, but not the tower, in 1992.

“For the city, not only is this important for the land acquisition, but even more important for the environment,” said Judie Zimomra, Sanibel’s City Manager.

Approximately 40 acres of the lighthouse property serve as a critical foraging area for migratory birds, with more than 55 species of migrating songbirds follow the barrier island’s flyway.

“Acquiring the lighthouse is really unbelievable,” said councilman Jim Jennings. “Everyone from the City Council to our regular citizens is very excited to see this happen. There are so many great possibilities here.”

Prior to the ceremony, Kevin Ruane and Mick Denham exchanged their thoughts on the lighthouse.

Bruce Dawson, Field Manager for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, was happy to see Sanibel finally take over the management of the lighthouse and property.

“We are here this morning … to give you 45 acres of property, which you have been holding in trust for the past 125 years,” he said.

“Together, we can address our resource needs and the needs of this community,” added Marcilynn Burke, Deputy Director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. “In accepting this patent, you are accepting to continue this stewardship.”

To a rousing ovation, Ruane accepted the official patent document from Burke.

“On behalf of all the citizens of Sanibel, I thank you,” said Ruane.

A view from the shoreline of the Sanibel Lighthouse, which turns 125 years old in 2010.