Sand Key Lighthouse

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.

Aerial view of Sand Key (1968).

Aerial view of Sand Key (1968).

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.

Map of the Florida Keys, from a report by Louis Agassiz (1880).

Map of the Florida Keys, from a report by Louis Agassiz. Sand Key is shown just southwest of Key West at the bottom-left (1880).

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.

A steamer delivers newspapers to the crew aboard a lightship in the Gulf of Mexico. Notice the two lamps attached to the masts (1867).

A steamer delivers newspapers to the crew aboard a lightship in the Gulf of Mexico. Notice the two lamps attached to the masts (1867).

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.

The post-1853 Sand Key Lighthouse (photo circa 1920s).

The post-1853 Sand Key Lighthouse (photo circa 1920s).

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.

Men having a picnic at Sand Key Lighthouse (1899).

Men having a picnic at Sand Key Lighthouse (1899).

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.

Sooty terns nesting on Bush Key in the Tortugas (1939).

Sooty terns nesting on Bush Key in the Tortugas (1939).

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.

Sand Key Lighthouse during its period of inactivity (1993).

Sand Key Lighthouse during its period of inactivity (1993).

For more photos of Florida’s historic lighthouses, search the Florida Photographic Collection.

What lighthouses have you visited in Florida? Tell us about your experiences by leaving a comment below or sharing on Facebook!

 

Funny Business on Pigeon Key

As you drive along the Seven Mile Bridge on U.S. 1 heading south toward Key West, you’ll notice a small island off to the right around Mile Marker 45. The old Overseas Highway, parts of which are still in use for one purpose or another, runs right down to it. Like much of the scenery in that part of Florida, the place looks like it belongs on a postcard. And, well, it is on a number of postcards. None of them, however, mention the shadier episodes in the island’s past.

Postcard depicting Pigeon Key, with the original Overseas Highway running across it. The postmark on the reverse side of the card was from 1940.

Postcard depicting Pigeon Key, with the original Overseas Highway running across it. The postmark on the reverse side of the card was from 1940.

Pigeon Key was a critical center of activity during the construction of Henry Flagler’s Oversea Railroad linking Key West with the Florida mainland. The island served as a camp for hundreds of workers, and was converted to a maintenance base once the railway was completed in 1912.

Construction workers' camp belonging to the Florida East Coast Railway on Pigeon Key (circa 1910).

Construction workers’ camp belonging to the Florida East Coast Railway on Pigeon Key (circa 1910).

The railway was a boon to the Florida Keys, of course, but not long after the road was completed, automobile enthusiasts began clamoring for the freedom to make their own way to Key West in their new machines. In 1933, the State Legislature created the Overseas Road and Toll Bridge District and authorized it to construct a toll road connecting Lower Matecumbe Key and Big Pine Key. This would complete the automobile route from Key West to the Florida mainland. The new commission studied several possibilities for building the route, but the option they selected came about completely by accident.

On September 2, 1935, the infamous Category 5 Labor Day Hurricane struck the Florida Keys, causing widespread destruction. Portions of the Florida East Coast Railway were destroyed, and the railway company ended up choosing to abandon its tracks across the Florida Keys rather than rebuild. The Overseas Road and Toll Bridge District saw an opportunity. Using a $3.6 million loan from the Public Works Administration, the commission purchased the tracks between Big Pine and Lower Matecumbe keys and refitted them with concrete decking and side rails. The newly completed highway opened on July 4, 1938.

Converting the Florida East Coast Railway to the Overseas Highway between Big Pine Key and Lower Matecumbe Key. Note that a few crossties are still visible in the image here (1937).

Converting the Florida East Coast Railway to the Overseas Highway between Big Pine Key and Lower Matecumbe Key. Note that a few crossties are still visible in the image here (1937).

Converting the tracks of the Florida East Coast Railway into a new bridge for automobiles in the Florida Keys (circa 1937).

Converting the tracks of the Florida East Coast Railway into a new bridge for automobiles in the Florida Keys (circa 1937).

Once the road was built, the idea was that the Overseas Road and Toll Bridge District would repay the federal loan using tolls collected for travelers using the new bridges. That’s where Pigeon Key comes in. The District established a headquarters building and maintenance base on the small island, with a small access road connecting it with the highway. Much of the business relating to maintenance, toll collection, and other matters was handled here.

Aerial view of Pigeon Key (1954).

Aerial view of Pigeon Key (1954).

As you might imagine, a gig working for the toll district in this island paradise was a nice assignment. Over time, however, some began to suspect it was a little too nice. In March 1954, the Miami Daily News began publishing a series of stories outlining activities at Pigeon Key that were raising a few eyebrows. The general manager of the toll authority, for example, was in the process of building a new real estate development north of Marathon, including a two-story home with a yacht basin for himself. This seemed awfully opulent for a man making $550 a month. The general manager refused the Miami Daily News reporters access to the District’s files at Pigeon Key, so they conducted research in the public financial records archived at Tallahassee.

What they found suggested something was deeply wrong about how the District’s funds were being spent. Expenses for the island headquarters included rabbit, squab, steaks selling at $1.77 a pound (in 1954, remember), bar supplies, and a variety of other expensive food items. The general manager also had at his disposal a cabin cruiser, a state-paid housekeeper and maid, and a $60,000 swimming pool. There was also evidence that state-owned property was being sold to persons connected with members of the District, and that District officials had tampered with the legal bidding process for contracts. Auditors later determined there were contracts let for work that was never completed, or for which the state was overcharged. Thousands of dollars’ worth of building supplies were unaccounted for. On the recommendation of the State Road Board chairman, Cecil Webb, Acting Governor Charley Johns launched an investigation, and charges were brought against several of the persons connected with the corruption at Pigeon Key. Johns liquidated the Overseas Road and Toll Bridge District later in 1954, and all of its assets were transferred to the State Road Board.

The story has a happy ending, fortunately. In 1964, the University of Miami Marine Laboratory leased the island from the state and began using it as a base for scientific investigations. Today, the island is operated as a historical site and marine science learning center by the Pigeon Key Foundation, a non-profit organization. The Overseas Highway has long since been rebuilt, and now passes south of the island rather than directly over it. The old span, however, still connects the island to the new Seven Mile Bridge and U.S. 1. The old bridge is only open to foot traffic, however. Most visitors reach the island by ferry.

Postcard depicting Pigeon Key, with both the old and new Overseas Highway spans visible. The bridge at right is the currently used span, while the one at left connects Pigeon Key with the main highway (circa 1990s).

Postcard depicting Pigeon Key, with both the old and new Overseas Highway spans visible. The bridge at right is the currently used span, while the one at left connects Pigeon Key with the main highway (circa 1990s).

For more photos of the Florida Keys, search the Florida Photographic Collection!

Shipwreck of the Atocha

It was June 13, 1971. Don Kincaid, who had been diving off the coast of the Florida Keys, made his way to the surface with a handful of something shiny, coiled up like a small snake. He climbed aboard the work boat Virgalona with the aid of a ladder, and excitedly spread his find out for his colleagues to see.

Kincaid’s boss, shipwreck hunter Mel Fisher, congratulated him and radioed to his other cruiser nearby to join them. Kincaid had found nearly eight feet of gold chain, a sign that Fisher and his team were close to something big. In time, they would learn that they had found the remains of a Spanish treasure ship, part of a fleet lost in a hurricane in 1622. The ship was called Nuestra Señora de Atocha.

The workship James Bay, used by Mel Fisher and his crew to excavate the remains of the Spanish galleon Atocha.

The work ship James Bay, used by Mel Fisher and his crew to excavate the remains of the Spanish galleon Atocha (1979).

The Spanish government sent treasure fleets periodically to its New World possessions to collect gold, silver, precious stones, and trade goods that had been mined or produced there. The ships then returned to Spain to deliver their holdings into the coffers of the Spanish monarchy. The Atocha had been recently built at Havana, Cuba for one of these missions. The name Nuestra Señora de Atocha honored the Virgin of a shrine near Madrid. The ship was 600 tons.

An example of a Spanish galleon similar to the Atocha, on display at McKee's Museum of Sunken Treasure on Plantation Key (1972).

An example of a Spanish galleon similar to the Atocha, on display at McKee’s Museum of Sunken Treasure on Plantation Key (1972).

When the 1622 treasure fleet left Spain in April, it carried wine, cloth, ironwork, and books to distribute to Spanish settlements in the Americas. It also carried around half a million pounds of mercury, which would be used to extract silver from ore mined in what is now Bolivia. When the fleet reached the New World, the ships began trading their goods for the riches of the Americas. They took on silver from Peru, gold bars and silver coins from New Granada, tobacco, indigo, and tons of Cuban copper.

Fleet officials were already getting nervous; hurricane season had started. The oppressive tropical summer heat was intense, and workers cursed and sweated in the baking sun as they loaded cargo and tended their ships. The Atocha and its sister vessels remained docked at Havana while their captains awaited the new moon, which they believed would provide fairer sailing weather until they could get past the dangerous Florida coast. On September 4th, the fleet finally put out to sea.

 

Map showing the approximate location of the wreck of the Spanish galleon Atocha.

Map showing the approximate location of the wreck of the Spanish galleon Atocha (indicated by a red circle).

Less than two days later, a powerful hurricane passed over the fleet near the Dry Tortugas, snapping masts and scattering the ships. Two of the ships, Nuestra Señora de Atocha and the Santa Margarita, sunk within sight of one another after running aground between Key West and the Dry Tortugas. Only five people from the Atocha survived, one sailor, two ship’s boys, and two slaves.

The loss of the treasure of the Atocha and the Santa Margarita was a significant financial blow for Spain. The Spanish government needed this money to run the country, especially the military, which was involved at this time in the ongoing Thirty Years’ War plaguing Central Europe. The Spanish sent salvage ships to the supposed site of the wreck, where indigenous slaves dove to the sea floor with the aid of a diving bell to search for the lost cargo. Eventually, the Spanish recovered about half of the treasure lost from the Santa Maragrita. One Spanish recovery mission found the location of the Atocha, but the water was too deep for divers to reach it. The Spaniards had little choice to abandon the wreck and its treasure in the churning waters of the Florida Straits, where it would remain for over 300 years.

Treasure hunter Mel Fisher viewing items recovered from the wreck of the Atocha (1978).

Treasure hunter Mel Fisher viewing items recovered from the wreck of the Atocha (1978).

That is, until Don Kincaid swam to the surface to show his shining discovery to shipwreck hunter Mel Fisher. After nearly two years of additional searching, Fisher’s crew began unearthing large amounts of treasure from the sea floor. On one day in May 1973, the divers brought up around 1,500 coins. They nicknamed the area the “Bank of Spain.”

 Gold coins from the wreck of the Atocha on display at Mallory Square in Key West (1982).

Gold coins from the wreck of the Atocha on display at Mallory Square in Key West (1982).

The treasures kept coming. Swords, cannonballs, gold bars, a rosary, the navigator’s astrolabe – treasure after priceless treasure emerged from the deep. Some were sold to pay for the costs of the hunt, including payments to people who had invested in Mel Fisher’s expedition. Many artifacts from the Atocha are now on display in museums around the Florida Keys.

Treasure from the Atocha on display at Mallory Square in Key West (1982).

Treasure from the Atocha on display at Mallory Square in Key West (1982).

Cannons taken from the wreck of the Atocha (1975).

Cannons taken from the wreck of the Atocha (1975).

Astrolabe from the wreck of the Atocha (circa 1980s).

Astrolabe from the wreck of the Atocha (circa 1980s).

What secrets lie beneath the waters near your Florida community? Search the Florida Photographic Collection for more photos of shipwrecks and the treasures they have yielded over the years.