Photographer: Keith W. Churill

Alligator Reef 

Islamorada, FL

Built: 1873

Construction: Iron, Skeletal

Status: Active

Height: 136 feet

Day-mark: white w/ black base and lantern room

Location: 4 miles East of Indian Key, FL

Access: Boat - many rental and charter services locally available, Car - distant view from U.S. 1 between mile larkers 77 and 80. Best viewing near mile marker 79, approximately 1 mile West of the  Table Channel bridge. This bridge connects Upper and Lower Matecumbe Keys with the light approximately 4 mile Southeast.

Lighthouse History: In 1821, the United States gained control of Florida from Spain. A small fleet of U.S. Navy gunboats then started patrolling Florida's coastline to put a stop to early 19th century African Slave Traders and the Pirates that terrorized many merchant shipping vessels. The reef this lighthouse sits upon received it's name from one of these Navy gunboats - the U.S.S. Alligator. The 12 gun, 198-ton schooner foundered just South of Islamorada on November 18, 1822. The sailors tried for three days to free her from the Southwest end of Carysford Reef with no success. The vessel was then destroyed to prevent it's pillaging from wandering buccaneers. For several years following, President James Monroe ordered a strong Naval presence in the area, removing the threat of high-seas terror. Navigational Aids along the dangerous coastline would not come to be for another 50 years during which countless vessels sank on the reef's jagged edge. The need for a lighthouse in the area near Indian Key was formally proposed by the U.S. Lighthouse Board in 1857.

Photo courtesy of: U.S. Coast Guard

With Florida joining the Confederacy in 1862, the Civil War postponed the appropriation of funds for the project until 1870. Construction of the lighthouse on Alligator Reef finally began in 1871.

A shallow area of the reef, only 4 feet deep, was chosen approximately 4 miles East of Indian Key. A temporary work platform was installed and a 2,000-pound steam operated hammer was used to drive the ten, 12" diameter iron pilings approximately ten feet into the coral to support the tower. The iron piles were then firmly anchored with a concrete foundation within a cast iron collar. The completed skeletal tower has a total height of 134 feet and supports a square keeper's dwelling 20 feet above the water. A central iron cylinder houses an iron spiral staircase that leads to the watch room and lantern room. The lantern room contains a First Order, Bi-valve Fresnel lens which emits an alternating white and red beacon. The lighthouse was also equipped with a fog signal

The lights completion exceeded the initial appropriation of funds by $85,000 with a total of $185,000.

On September 2, 1935, this lighthouse survived one of the most violent hurricanes to ever hit the United States. Creating a devastating 20 foot storm surge, monstrous waves and 200 mile per hour winds, this "Labor Day Hurricane" took approximately 400 lives with it's passing. The storm produced a still standing western hemisphere record of a 26.35 inch barometric pressure drop. The light survived the storm because of it's narrow profile. All but one window was destroyed by the winds and debris from the Long Key viaduct was scattered among the keeper's dwelling platform.

In 1963, the U.S. Coast Guard automated the lightstation. It still operates today as an active Aid to Navigation with an alternating white and red beacon along with a fog signal.

Photographer: Keith W. Churill


 

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