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New Mission for Keys' Reef Lights: Historical Guideposts

Andy Newman
Florida Keys News Service

The reef lights along the Florida Keys are still owned by the U.S. Coast Guard -- but a nonprofit group hopes to take over their care and make them a 100-mile long museum of maritime history.

The Florida Keys Reef Lights Foundation is raising money to apply to the Coast Guard for ownership of five lights stretching from Carysfort Reef off Key Largo to Sand Key off Key West. The others are Alligator Reef off Islamorada, Sombrero Reef off Marathon and American Shoal off the Lower Keys.

Even though the towers are unlit now, the markers are still serving mariners, said Eric Martin, president of the foundation. And the lights have "the value of history."

The oldest of these five, Carysfort, was built in 1852. The project was overseen at its completion by Gen. George Gordon Meade -- he would later direct Union troops at the Battle of Gettsyburg. Meade also oversaw the construction of the lights at Sand Key and Sombrero Reef.

The final two lights, Alligator Reef and American Shoal, were delayed by the Civil War. Alligator Reef was lit in 1873 and American Shoal in 1880. Lighthouse keepers lived in structures within the towers, staying through hurricanes and long, hot summers.

Fowey Rocks, built as part of the same system, was transferred to Biscayne National Park in 2012 and the Reef Lights Foundation has raised money for stabilization projects there. It hopes to do the same for the remainder of the reef lights, and eventually build a museum on the Keys highlighting their history.

In the meantime, Keys boaters and artists continue to appreciate the markers and their place in the history of the island chain, even as their primary role has gone from protecting ships from the reef to protecting the reef from ships. One local artist, known as "Lighthouse Larry," was the inspiration for an 8-mile open water swim that now takes place to Alligator Light each year.