Roger Bansemer

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Information and illustrations about Sand Key  lighthouse by artist & author Roger Bansemer.
Sand Key Lighthouse
1827, 1853

Sand Key lighthouse.jpg (39679 bytes)
Sand Key Lighthouse © Roger Bansemer

Original painting available

Sand Key lighthouse

Sand Key Lighthouse is probably the most convenient of all the reef lighthouses in the Keys to get to. It’s also a great place to do some snorkeling, and there are many small boats that regularly take groups of snorkelers to the lighthouse, around which more than sixty mooring buoys boats are welcome to tie up to.

Like other reef lighthouses, Sand Key was built on a coral reef. A variety of fish—including grunts, yellowtail, snapper, parrotfish, and angelfish—are the main residents on the reef, but you might also see grouper, blue tang, and even the occasional nurse shark.

The reef at Sand Key varies in depth, dropping to ninety feet in some places. In the shallows, you can see brain coral, fire coral, and even artifacts from the original brick lighthouse that was destroyed during a hurricane in 1846. The storm was so severe that the keepers’ house was completely washed away and the lighthouse collapsed with the keepers inside.

A lightship was used for seven years until a new wrought-iron, screwpile lighthouse was constructed to replace the brick one. This type of lighthouse was much less susceptible to the forces of hurricane winds because the thin structure offered little wind resistance, and since it was firmly anchored into the coral reef, it was in less danger of being washed away. There is sometimes a white sandy beach around the lighthouse, but with every storm it changes. When I was there, the island had disappeared under the clear, blue Gulf Stream waters, leaving only the lighthouse visible.

The present Sand Key lighthouse stands 109 feet tall and was built with 450 tons of iron. It was finally lit in 1853 after several funding delays. Inside were nine rooms, each measuring twelve feet square. One of the rooms held two tanks: one held oil; the other held rainwater for cooking and drinking. Two boats were supplied for this lighthouse, which was unusual; most lighthouses had only one.

The light was automated in 1941, and the Coast Guard inspects it every three to five months, making a thorough inspection of the entire structure every six years. Late one afternoon in 1989, as the lighthouse was being renovated, flammable paints and chemicals caught fire, and the lighthouse began to burn. It’s hard to believe that a steel structure could be affected by fire, but the keepers’ quarters were lined with wood and also contained wood furniture. The fire generated enough heat to buckle and destroy much of the keepers’ quarters and to collapse the base of the stairs and stair tower. The keepers’ quarters, as well as the spiral staircase and tubular support, have been completely removed. An exposed ladder, where the staircase once was, is now the only way to reach the top of the lighthouse. Today a beacon stands a few hundred yards away and serves as a temporary replacement for a lighthouse that guided ships through the area for over 150 years.

Roger Bansemer©

Sand Key Lighthouse Map, Key west Map
©Roger Bansemer