Lighthouses in the Florida Keys have a tough task to manage. The area is not only strewn with coral reefs and shoals, but is also a favorite highway for destructive hurricanes and other storms. The lighthouse at Sand Key, the southernmost lighthouse in the United States, has been in operation since 1827, and has borne witness to much of this action over the years.
Sand Key is little more than a wisp of sand peeking out above the waves in the Florida Straits. It is located about six nautical miles southwest of Key West, with an excellent view of major shipping lanes through the vicinity. Congress originally passed up Sand Key for a lighthouse station when it began appropriating money for new lights in the region. Acts in 1822 and 1824 funded lighthouses at Cape Florida, Carysford Reef, the Dry Tortugas, and one of the Sambo Keys, but nothing for Sand Key.
Naval authorities still favored a light here, and Congress finally appropriated $16,000 in 1826 for a brick lighthouse and buildings for a resident light keeper and supplies. The light was completed and lit the following year, with John and Rebecca Flaherty as the keepers.
The Flaherty family kept the Sand Key Lighthouse into the mid-1830s. John died in 1830, but Rebecca continued as the lighthouse keeper until she remarried and eventually moved back north.
Hurricanes did extensive damage to the island and the lighthouse in the 1830s and 1840s. In October 1846, one storm completely demolished the lighthouse and swept away much of the island itself. Six people, including two children, perished in the tempest.
Congress appropriated money in 1847 for a replacement lighthouse. Meanwhile, the 140-ton ship Honey was employed as a “lightship,” a floating beacon anchored near where the lighthouse would normally have been.
The new lighthouse was completed in 1853, and featured Florida’s first Fresnel lens. The lens had been displayed at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in New York before it was shipped to Florida for installation. It was lit for the first time on July 20, 1853.
The new Sand Key lighthouse was much stronger than the traditional conical brick building it replaced. The shaft of the lighthouse was a cast-iron pile, supported by a frame of iron beams. Over 450 tons of iron went into its construction.
A series of hurricanes in the ensuing decades made every attempt to undo this new feat of engineering. In October 1865, a storm destroyed every building on the island except the lighthouse itself. In October 1870, a pair of hurricanes delivered enough damage to require $20,000 worth of repairs. Additional hurricanes struck the island directly in 1874, 1875, 1909, and 1910.
Sand Key’s exposure to the elements certainly made its keepers cautious, but there were also positive elements to life on the island. Key West was only a day’s sail away, and residents often came over to Sand Key to have picnics. Fishermen also stopped off to visit and sell their wares.
Although the island was small and offered little shelter from the wind and rain, terns frequently chose Sand Key to lay their eggs. The lighthouse keepers and Key West residents considered these a tasty treat, and collected them often. Plume hunters also came to Sand Key to hunt egrets and herons for their feathers, which were in high demand as decorations for ladies’ hats. The American Orinthological Union attempted to stop these practices by hiring “bird wardens” to watch over the animals. Eventually, the birds took matters into their own hands and stopped visiting Sand Key altogether.
The Coast Guard acquired the lighthouse at Sand Key in 1939, and automated its lamp in 1941 using an acetylene gas system. A live-in keeper was no longer required. Instead, Coast Guard personnel traveled to the island a few times a year to refill the fuel tanks.
With no one keeping watch over the island, the lighthouse suffered a great deal of vandalism over the years. Parts of the old keeper’s quarters fell into disrepair. A major renovation effort in 1989 restored much of the old lighthouse’s former lustre, but in November of that year the project was almost fatally derailed when a fire damaged the structure. Nearly a decade was spent restoring the lighthouse, but it resumed service on August 11, 1999.
For more photos of Florida’s historic lighthouses, search the Florida Photographic Collection.
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