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
wasnt 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 Services 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 lighthousesstanding at 142
feet talland 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 dont venture out if the weather is rough:
It gets a lot rougher out in the open ocean.
Sombrero Reef lighthouse ©Roger Bansemer