The term “senior citizens” is relatively new when referring to those eligible for AARP membership — and today’s seniors are more adventurous, creative and energetic than ever before.

Barbara Mabrity served as a Key West lighthouse keeper until she was 82 years old. (Photo courtesy of the Key West Art & Historical Society)

However, that doesn’t mean that seniors were not active, productive citizens in prior centuries (particularly in the Florida Keys, the subtropical island chain where ageism is almost as rare as snowstorms).

One such senior was Barbara Mabrity, who served as Key West’s lighthouse keeper for many years.

The historic lighthouse, located on Whitehead Street, has some 88 iron steps to the top. For those with strong legs and powerful stamina, the panorama from the top is spectacular.

So too is Barbara’s story.

The first lighthouse keeper was Michael Mabrity, Barbara’s husband, and she served as his assistant. Appointed in 1826, they worked together until Michael’s death in 1832. Then Barbara, who was caring for the couple’s six children, took over.

Barbara was the lighthouse keeper during a devastating 1846 hurricane — and though she had survived three previous hurricanes, the 1846 storm was different. The original lighthouse was completely destroyed and many (some say all) of her children perished.

The Key West Lighthouse, shown here in an early photo, guided mariners in area waters. (Photo courtesy of the Key West Art & Historical Society)

Barbara herself survived once again and, despite her grief, continued to serve when the new lighthouse was built. Ultimately she spent 32 years as the lighthouse keeper — plus the six early years as her husband’s assistant.

During the Civil War, when Key West remained a Union town, the lighthouse was the only one in Florida not taken by the Confederacy. But Barbara ran into trouble during the war years because of her pro-southern views. When she was accused of making remarks disloyal to the Union, she denied it vigorously.  Nonetheless, she was fired from her position in 1864, when she was 82 years old. Three years later, Barbara Mabrity died.

Her legacy continued in the Mabrity family, however, with granddaughter Mary Carroll and other descendants following in her footsteps and serving as lighthouse keepers.

Today’s lighthouse beckons visitors as it once beckoned mariners. (Photo courtesy of the Florida Keys News Bureau)

Today the Key West Lighthouse is a museum, with artifacts recalling the days of the early lighthouse keepers who played such an important role in the development of the island.

Visitors to the museum are particularly intrigued by the story of Barbara Mabrity and two other courageous women who devoted themselves to the Key West light. Underscoring these women’s importance is a photograph that hangs on one wall of the museum. It depicts a U.S. Coast Guard cutter that was commissioned in 1999 — and is named for Barbara Mabrity.

The Key West Lighthouse Museum, located at 938 Whitehead St., is operated by the Key West Art and Historical Society and is open from 9:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. For more information, call (305) 294-0012.

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