Lighthouses and The Reef

The danger of the Florida Reef to shipping became a critical matter in the mid 1850’s. Near Sand Key alone, 8 vessels 8 vessels were run aground in a 16 month period, causing a loss of millions of dollars in modern terms. Construction of lighthouses to mark the dangerous reefs became a governments priority.

Lieutenant George G. Meade supervised construction of Sand Key Light. Ten years later, in 1863, he led Union troops to defeat Robert E. Lee in the second battle at Gettysburg.

Poor navigational signals helped to foster the growth of the wrecking industry. Key West’s “Wreckers” sailed out to grounded vessels, saved any survivors and salvaged cargo.

Keeping the light burning was a tedious task before George Meade introduced this hydraulic lamp of his own design at Sand Key. It was the first dependable lamp to burn through the night without needing tending. It is shown here inside a First Order Fresnel Lens, about 6 feet in diameter, which looks like a large glass pineapple.

Screw-pile Construction was used on the iron reef lights. 8-inch diameter piles with 2-foot wide screw bases were slowly driven into the reef and sand below. They are anchored 10 feet deep in the reef, and cross-braced with wrought iron ties above.

The lighthouses along the Florida Reef shine their lights as far as 9 miles, warning ships of the hidden danger below. They also serve as guardians to the reef– saving the reef from the severe damage that would be caused by boats running aground.

Screw-pile Lighthouses certainly damaged the reef when they were first constructed. But the long-term result of the lighthouses is that they protect the reef from much greater damage to its living organisms over decades and even centuries.