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History of the Florida Reef Lights 

(Revised March 2021)

by Eric S. Martin


      Ever since boats and ships have sailed along the Florida Reef, there has been a need for navigational

aids.   It would be a long hard journey to make boating trips safer.  It would take years to even have good

charts indicating where the reef was located.  Ships sailing from the Atlantic to the Gulf had the most

trouble.  Captains did not want to sail against the Gulf Stream which runs the opposite direction, so they

tried to sail near the reef, especially if their ship was not fast as the Gulf Stream that goes about 3 to 4

 miles per hour.  As ships were made larger they needed deeper water.  Once steam power came of age, it

 would be better, but captains would still try to make fast times and conserve fuel, thus putting them back

 close to the reef. 

     Then there is the weather.  Thunder storms are normal during the long summer in Florida and from June 1st to November 30th is Hurricane season.  The worst months being August and September.  Before planes, radar and satellites one had to know the signs a Hurricane was coming and then time was extremely short.  Columbus on his fourth voyage remembered on an earlier voyage that the seas were so smooth as to appear slick, cirrus clouds and a lot of marine life were observed.  He did not have a barometer as it would not be invented for a century.  He found a place to anchor, but knew the storm might separate his four ships and had told his captains where to meet if that event should occur.  They were blown four directions, but all survived and within a few days regrouped.  However, other captains would not be so wise in the coming centuries (or even today).  [Pages 122-132 of The Last Voyage of Columbus by Martin Dugard.]

     In days of old a beacon could be a lighted beacon or what we now call a day mark.  Day marks would be the first permanent sign to help sailors.  In many cases this would be a barrel upside down on a pole.  This would mark a shallow area.  Of course at night this was not much help unless the moon was full and sky was clear.

    Florida became United States territory in 1821, by 1825 the United States government built Cape Florida on Key Biscayne to mark the north end of the reef and placed a lightship, Aurora Borealis,  in the Dry Tortugas.  Shortly in 1826 the Dry Tortugas Lighthouse and the first Key West Lighthouse was built, while the lightship Caesar was lit in April and anchored at Carysfort Reef.  The following year the first Sand Key Lighthouse was built on the island of Sand Key (the island has since washed away and come back in a smaller size).  In 1830 the Caesar would be replace by the lightship Florida.  

     Cape Florida would be put out of commission in 1836 by an attack of the Seminole Indians during the Second Seminole War and was not re-lit till 1846.  The tower was extended in 1855.  Key West and Sand Key would be destroyed by the Hurricane of 1846, only Key West would be re-built in 1847.

    In 1847 Congress also authorized a lighthouse at Carysfort Reef.  The choice of design was delayed until the creation of United States  Lighthouse Board in 1852.  Instead of a masonry design a new design was chosen.  It was an iron skeletal structure that would allow much of the wind the waves from hurricanes to blow through it.  The coral rock was not as hard as thought so the pilings were not steady enough.  Captain Stansbury devised a eight foot in diameter plate that would go around the each pile.  The "foot plate" proved to be one of the key reasons that the reef lighthouses withstood many hurricanes.  Before Stansbury could finish the work finances ran out, so he was reassigned, his replacement Major Linnard  died shortly after.    Lt. Meade (later General Meade of Civil War fame) would take over  Carysfort Reef Lighthouse construction and on March 10, 1852 the lighthouse would be completed.  The lightship would no longer be needed at this spot.

     In 1850 a 38 foot pole top with a black barrel would be a day mark at Looe Key.  Two years later in 1852 15 day markers would be erected along the reef.  They were 36 feet high piles with a barrel on top painted black.  Five years later the barrels would be replaced by hoop-iron latticework cylinders each would have a different letter and painted with a unique combination of red, white and black colors on the vanes, cylinders and shaft.  These day markers could be seen 2 to 3 miles with the naked eye and 6 to 10 with a telescope.  Three of these would be replace with reef lighthouses by 1880.

    Meade moved down to Sand Key to built the second Reef Lighthouse.  It was completed July 20, 1853.  Another lightship was reassigned.

    The Lighthouse Board ordered Meade to build a day beacon on Rebecca Shoal.  He said when he inspected the site, "No beacon of any kind had been erected, in the United States or in Europe,  in a position that was more exposed or offered greater obstacles. He nearly had it finished when a storm washed away the entire structure.  For the time being it would be marked by buoys only.

    Now to build one in the middle.  The original site was Coffin's Patch and work was started there, however, on August 29th 1856 a hurricane destroyed the work platform.  While Meade waited for additional funds, he searched for a better location and found it nine miles away.  Sombrero Key (locally know as Dry Banks then).  He then delayed the project to have the piles galvanized.  This was a new process, but Meade thought it would make the piles last longer and he was right.  On March 17th, 1858 the tower was lit.

    It would be 15 years before the building of the next 3 would be started.  This was due mostly to the Civil War which not only took 4 years to fight, but during the war many lighthouses in the south were put out of commission by the Confederate government to prevent the Union forces from using them.  Union troops also did some damage to the lighthouses.  The job of restoring those lighthouses would take first priority.

    Alligator Reef Lighthouse would be lit in 1873 just 30 yards from the day mark.  In 1935 this lighthouse  would survive a hurricane of 200 miles an hour.  The glass in the lantern room and the lens would be destroyed, but the damage would be repaired in short time.

    Even with improvements to Cape Florida Lighthouse over the years there were still complaints that the light was hard to see, so another reef lighthouse was built at Fowey Rocks in 1878.  In this case the lighthouse did not mark a previously unlit area, but improved the light.

    Last to be built was American Shoal in 1880.  It was first going to be erected at Looe Key, but American Shoal was considered a better site.  The structure would look much like Fowey Rocks as that blueprint was used, however, the lantern room roof would not be bell shaped and the Victorian flourishes were left out.  In 1990 a United States postage stamp would honor the lighthouse.

     In 1989 Sand Key caught on fire and destroyed the keepers house and spiral staircase.  Since the light was automated those two items were not replaced.  Repairs were made to the structure and was re-lit a few years later.

    Under the current program, National Lighthouse Preservation Act, the Coast Guard is giving away lighthouses to local and state governments as well as non-profit groups like ourselves.  The applicant has to convince the national government they will be able to maintain the structure and not make any changes that would alter the historic state of the lighthouse.  This is why the Florida Keys Reef Lights Foundation was started in 2001, less than one year after the act was past.  One of our goals is to establish a regional museum in the keys area.  We also will be working to get the lighthouses open for tours and overnight stays.

    Fowey Rocks Lighthouse has been transferred to Biscayne National Park as of October 2012.  The Florida Keys Reef Lights Foundation has applied for grant money and given donations to help stabilize the lighthouse.  As of April 2015 we have raised and donated $35,000.  We have another $42,000 matching money for a $44,000 grant, so far two matching applications were denied.  Once we get the matching money the  last phrase of the stabilization project, will be done.

    In April 2013 the board of Directors all voted to apply for the other 5 Reef lighthouses.

    In 2015 the Coast Guard turned off the lights to Carysfort Reef, Sand Key, Sombrero Key, Alligator Reef and American Shoal.  They are official abandoned.

     In 2016 Sand Key was transferred to the GSA (General Services Administration). F K R L F has requested a license for us to put anodes on the five remaining lighthouses.

     In 2017 Sand Key to be released, is delayed one year as lawyers decided whether the lighthouse is in Florida or not.

    In 2018 Sand Key up for free transfer, we apply and are rejected.  F K R L F disagrees, nonetheless, it is recommended to auction it off.

    In 2019 Sand Key is up for auction, title problems have extended this auction, currently it has been 14 months.  We are in 1st place.

    Also in 2019 the other 4 are up for transfer.  We have put in a letter of interest for all 4 (Carysfort, Sombrero, Alligator & American Shoal).

     In 2020 in November the auction for Sand Key finally came to an end.  Four new bidders, however, the first group won at $83,000.  They withdrew less than a week before closing.  It will be offered to the second place person(s).  Our final bid was $60,000.

     In 2021 we know the committees have made their recommendation for the 4 lighthouses (Carysfort, Sombrero, Alligator & American Shoal).  We don't know what it is.  A new Secretary,  of the interior has been selected, Deb Haaland, we will appeal to her.

Sources used - Lore of the Reef Lights: Life in the Florida Keys by Tom W. Taylor; Lighthouses of the Florida Keys by Love Dean; Florida Lighthouse Trail edited by Tom W. Taylor, various authors; The Last Voyage of Columbus by Martin Dugard.

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