Pompano Lighthouse History
Living at the Hillsboro Lighthouse
Reams of copy have been written about the Hillsboro Lighthouse. There have been books, films, movies ,articles, paintings and just about any kind of story told about the lighthouse you might want to hear. Some of them are true and some of them are, well, just what they are called, stories.
The lighthouse was erected in the year 1906 making her a grand old lady of 93 years and carrying her age extremely well. The site for the lighthouse was chosen at the Hillsboro Inlet for several reasons, including the distance from the lighthouse at Jupiter Inlet to the north and the lighthouse at Cape Coral to the south. Ships coming from the Bahamas and missing the Jupiter light could find their direction from the Hillsboro light. There are dangerous reefs in this area and ships needed light to help them safely by. The Gulfstream is very close to the beach and south bound ships had to come close ashore at the inlet.
The first Hillsboro lighthouse keeper appointed in the year 1907 was Alfred A. Berghill. He was replaced in 1911 by Thomas Knight who was a third generation lighthouse keeper. There were three lighthouse keepers and three houses on the grounds plus an oil shed. It required three keepers to maintain the light, which had to be kept burning and revolving from one hour before dusk to one hour after sunrise. Two men worked two shifts so one man could get a full night's rest.
The kerosene lamp that powered the light in the early days had to burn clean, and the huge lens had to be rotated uniformly. This was accomplished by a weight hanging in the tube that went through the watch room and connected to a steel drum and gears to the lens housing that floated on mercury. It would take approximately 30 minutes for the weight to reach the bottom of the tube at which time the keeper would insert a crank and wind it up again.
The Hillsboro light is situated on one of the most scenic spots imaginable. Not only does it border on the inlet, which has a history that will never be completely and accurately told, but it sits on the Atlantic Ocean and stands tall and majestic, looking out upon land and sea and being seen as a silent sentinel defying time and tide.
It is here in the year 1920, Zora Isler, later Zora Isler Saxon, arrived at the tender age of four with her family and spent 15 years of her life living at the lighthouse until she married Ovid Saxon in 1935. Zora remembers how it looked when she first arrived at the isolated lighthouse with thick vegetation around the site. Her mother and father, J.B. Isler and Mary Louise, lived at and operated the lighthouse for nearly twenty years until the US Coast Guard took over the operation in 1939 before the country entered W.W.II. The lighthouse operated under the jurisdiction of the Dept. of Commerce until that time. Zora lived there with sister Irene and brother Beck and later sister Ruth and brother George were born at the lighthouse.
Life at the lighthouse was an adventure in itself, Zora says. For many of the years, there was no bridge across the inlet and they had to travel to Deerfield by boat up the East Coast Canal to Sweats grocery store once a week for personal supplies. Supplies for the lighthouse were delivered by ship once or twice a year from Charleston S.C. and occasionally supplies would be delivered by boats traveling the East Coast Canal. They raised many of their vegetables and some meat was provided by hunting deer in the woods around the inlet. Occasionally Indians would come by boat and trade with them.
The government would furnish a place for school and a teacher if there were at least nine children living in any isolated place. Since there was no bridge across the inlet, one of the buildings was set aside for a school and Lola, the wife of Capt. Knight was one of the teachers. Zora also had an aunt who came down from Vero to live with them and teach until the bridge across the inlet was built. After that they caught the school bus at the bridge and attended school in Pompano which gave them access to more activities.
Zora says they were never bored. They fished in the inlet, swam, dug clams, hunted turtles, shelled, sunbathed and at times just lay around on the beach watching the birds and the fish. More exciting, when water hyacinths were flushed out of the glades by high water, they would count the rattlesnakes floating on them. An occasional gator would be spotted swimming in the inlet. Their days were anything but dull! One of the highlights occurred whenever a ship passed offshore. A mad dash was made for the flagpole, and when the ship would sound its whistle they would "dip" the flag in salute.
Conditions at the lighthouse were just about par with most of Pompano during this time. There was no electricity or running water. Rain water was caught and stored in cisterns. A pitcher pump was used to bring the water to the kitchen sink, and naturally there were no indoor toilets. Zora says "our baths, other than swimming in the ocean or inlet, were taken in the house in front of the stove in a wash tub." These facilities, or lack of them, were a part of life and not too much thought was given to the inconvenience. The first several years Zora lived at the lighthouse, Cap Knight had a barge pulled up on the spit of land on the South side of the inlet between the ocean and Wahoo Bay and he operated his bar there, finally moving it to the location on "Cap's Island" in the Intracoastal Waterway. It is said the foundation for "Cap's Place" still rests on this barge. There were people who camped on this finger of land year 'round and some of their children attended the government school at the light station. In those days people from Pompano would often come to this spot to picnic, swim, fish and dig clams.
The nearby Hillsboro Club was built around 1925 when Herbert Malcolm bought the land for the club for seventy five cents an acre. His brother, Dan, cleared and made a sand road from the club property to Deerfield. This made travel a little easier, and I suppose made the club more accessible to visitors. The club was originally a boys school. Burnham Knight, son of one of the lighthouse keepers ran a fishing boat out of the Hillsboro inlet and Herbert Malcolm would charter his boat for fishing trips for his students.
Zora remembers one of the light keepers was a Mr. Swain and one of them was Mr. Stone who was one of the last civilian keepers along with her father in the year 1939. After the light was converted from kerosene to electric it then required only two keepers to operate the station and some of the physical effort was eliminated. There were still 132 spiral steps to climb to get to the light deck of the 140-ft. high lighthouse. After the 1926 hurricane had washed away the boat dock and removed much sand from the base of the lighthouse, the government sent large granite boulders to Pompano by ship. They were transported from offshore on barges that Zora and her brothers and sisters called "The Toonerville Trolley." These boulders are still in place on the ocean side of the lighthouse today, having weathered many hurricanes including the hurricane of Sept. 21, 1947. This storm blew the anemometer off the top of the lighthouse after it registered winds of 155 miles per hour.
From 1885 to 1892 post office agents carried the mail on foot along the shore to the sparsley populated South Florida coast. In 1887, Ed Hamilton, best known as "The Barefoot Mailman," perished at Hillsboro Inlet while attempting to swim across after someone had removed the boat he relied on to cross the inlet. There is a plaque at the lighthouse commemorating this tragic happening. Several years ago another plaque was erected there with the names of all the former light keepers.
Zora Isler Saxon is a pioneer in the truest sense of the word. She once lived in a time and place that many people today cannot comprehend and those who do can only envy. It seems incredible that during her lifetime Pompano and the Hillsboro Lighthouse could have changed so much from the setting she so ably describes. Thank you Zora.
Zora Islers brother, Beck Isler, also lived at the lighthouse when his dad
was lighthouse keeper. After graduating from Pompano High School in 1938, Beck
went to work at the Hillsboro Club as a maintenance man and remained in that
position until he died. Being revealed publicly now for the first time is the
fact that Beck Islers ashes are buried on the grounds of the Hillsboro
Lighthouse per his wishes.