Sand Key Lighthouse is probably the most convenient of all the
reef lighthouses in the Keys to get to. Its 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
fishincluding grunts, yellowtail, snapper, parrotfish, and angelfishare 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
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. Its 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.