Roger Bansemer

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Information and illustrations about Sombrero Key  lighthouse by artist & author Roger Bansemer.
Sombrero Key Lighthouse

Florida Keys
1858

Sombrero Reef lighthouse print
Sombrero Key Lighthouse © Roger Bansemer

Sombrero Key lighthouse print
Original painting also available

Sombrero Key Lighthouse

One hundred and fifty years ago, ships became grounded and damaged and sank up and down the coasts of the Florida Keys about every week and a half on the average. Seventy-one ships sank here in 1856 alone. Who knows how many ships went down in earlier times, when records were lost to the sea along with crew and cargo? Today we take it for granted that ships can safely navigate waters with few problems, but it wasn’t always that way. Before the electronic age, sailors had to rely on the stars, crude maps, lighthouses, and good judgment to guide them. There was no sonar onboard to tell the depth of the water, and there were no detailed and frequently updated maps or global navigation systems collecting information from a half dozen satellites overhead to pinpoint your location to within a few yards.

Of course, not all the ships that were lost on the reefs were destroyed by accident or because of a lack of vigilance on the part of captains. As new steamships were introduced, older sailing ships began to operate at a loss. Unfortunately, there was plenty of opportunity for ship captains and owners to be less than honest. Many ships were run aground and wrecked intentionally to take advantage of marine insurance. Cargo would be thrown overboard and salvagers, known as "Wreckers" were often in on the scheme. They operated all up and down the Keys and their goal was to get to a distressed ship in time to gather up whatever they could before a ship went down. For their efforts they either got to keep a percentage of the salvage or were paid in cash for what they had saved. Many were honest men but many were not and were often in on the scheme of intentional shipwrecking and shared with the owners the illegitimate rewards.

One judge at the time, after hearing case after case concerning salvage, thought that nearly half of the shipwrecks could be attributed to causes other than the perils of the sea. Even after the reef lighthouses in the Keys were built, the number of shipwrecks remained about the same, but because ship traffic had increased, the actual percentage of ships being wrecked on the reefs actually dropped.

Keepers living in lighthouses along the coast always lived with their families but reef lighthouses had no room for families, only the keeper and his assistants. Close quarters and a lack of contact with the outside world often led to hostilities among the men.

Only one boat was kept at each reef lighthouse as was the case at the Sombrero Key lighthouse, so when one man sailed to Key West for supplies, the others would be left alone without a boat. If there was trouble, the keepers’ only salvation was to raise a distress flag and hope that a passing ship would stop. Sometimes a keeper would be caught in bad weather and drown, as was the case at Sombrero Key. Even more ghastly, an assistant keeper once died at this lighthouse, and the keeper, not wanting to be accused of foul play, kept the dead body at the lighthouse in the heat for three days until a ship finally stopped.

The Coast Guard replaced the U.S. Lighthouse Service’s nonmilitary lighthouse keepers in 1939. In 1960, the light was automated, leaving Sombrero Key unattended except for occasional maintenance visits. The first-order Fresnel lens was removed in the early 1980s and is now on display at the Key West Lighthouse Museum.

Sombrero Key Lighthouse is the tallest of the reef lighthouses—standing at 142 feet tall—and was built at a cost of $153,000. You can just make out the lighthouse on your left in clear weather as you head south on Route 1, crossing the bridge just after Marathon. The only way to get to this lighthouse is by boat. Not all marinas have boat rentals, but they can tell you where to find one. Motel owners can also point you in the right direction. I rented my boat from Bud Boats, which is located at the Buccaneer Resort, 2600 Overseas Highway (mile marker 48.5) in Marathon. Keep in mind that reef lighthouses are a long way from shore, so don’t venture out if the weather is rough: It gets a lot rougher out in the open ocean.

Sombrero Reef lighthouse ©Roger Bansemer

Sombrero Reef Lighthouse Map
©Roger Bansemer