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Information and illustrations about Alligator Reef lighthouse by artist & author Roger Bansemer.
Alligator Reef Lighthouse
1873

Alligator Reef lighthouse

Alligator Reef lighthouse print

Alligator Reef lighthouse

Piracy was rampant in the early 1800s and the area around Alligator Reef was no exception. No ship was safe with so many pirates sailing the waters around the Florida Keys and southward to the West Indies. The slave trade was also big business during this time, and the U.S. government wanted to put an end to both slave trading and piracy. One of the ships commissioned to help with this cleanup effort was the U.S.S. Alligator,  for which the lighthouse and reef was named. The Alligator was assigned to patrol the areas around Florida and the West Indies but made trips as far away as Africa to capture several slave ships. One dark night in November 1822, the Alligator, while cruising the coast on what was then known as Carysford Reef, went hard aground, burying her hull in the sharp coral. For three days the crew labored to free the schooner, but with all efforts exhausted, the crew abandoned the ship and made an encampment at a nearby key. Fortunately another American ship, the Ann Maria, was sailing the area. Her crew saw the Alligator on the reef and tried but failed to remove the ship from its position. The captain of the Alligator ordered all government property onboard his ship, including twelve cannons, transferred to the Ann Maria. The Alligator was then blown up to keep pirates from using anything that remained. To this day, two sections of the ship’s hull still lie on the ocean floor, including some rigging, cannonballs, and gun carriages, all encrusted in the coral that was responsible for destroying her.

In 1852, in an effort to make navigation safer, day markers were placed along the Florida Keys. Each one was simply an iron pole thirty-six feet high with nothing more than a large barrel fastened to the top. They were all painted a different color and could be seen for a couple of miles with the naked eye and maybe ten miles with a telescope. They were later upgraded with painted metal cylinders and included a letter on each one. Despite these markers, more than six hundred vessels shipwrecked and were lost to the reefs along the Keys between 1848 and 1858. These ships had a combined value of twenty-two million dollars.

A lighthouse was clearly needed. In 1857, the Light House Board recommended that one be built on Alligator Reef, but nothing was done because major events, such as Florida’s secession from the Union in 1861 and the Civil War, kept getting in the way. Finally in 1870, Congress decided to allocate enough funds to build a lighthouse, but it wasn’t completed and lit until 1873.

The 136-foot-tall Alligator Reef lighthouse cost $185,000 to build. It was completely assembled in Cold Spring, New York, then taken apart and shipped to the Keys. Two and a half miles offshore, piles were driven ten feet into the coral with a steam-powered pile driver. The massive hammer, though it weighed two thousand pounds and was dropped from a height of eighteen feet, managed to wedge the piles into the coral only about one inch with each strike.

Living quarters at the lighthouse were divided into four rooms. There were two doors on each wall of the house instead of windows. Privacy wasn’t a major concern and neither were insects. In general, there were few insects that far out in the ocean, but mosquitoes did reach the light and would sometimes be a nuisance if the winds were blowing from the Keys. Below the living quarters, large drinking-water tanks were suspended. Every few years, the keeper would have to clean them, then melt paraffin and apply it to the inside walls to protect the metal from rust and to keep the water cleaner. The tanks were then filled by a tender; afterwards rainwater would keep them full. These tanks were removed after the lighthouse became automated in 1963.

The Alligator Reef Lighthouse is only a couple of miles offshore, and you can easily see it in the distance as you head south and cross the bridge from Islamorada. For a closer look, however, the only way to reach the lighthouse is by boat. A good place to rent a boat is at Bud n’ Mary’s Marina (ph. 800-742-7945) right by the bridge (mile marker 79.5) or at Robbie’s Marina (mile marker 77.5), a little further south.

İRoger Bansemer

Alligator Reef Lighthouse Map, Florida KeysİRoger Bansemer