|Dry Tortugas (Loggerhead Key), FL|
Description: Even after the establishment of a lighthouse on Garden Key in 1826, wreckers were still making a good living by assisting ships that had run aground on the surrounding nearly eighty-square-mile grouping of reefs, shoals, and islands known as the Dry Tortugas. The wreckers, a term used both for the vessels and the men engaged in the salvage operations, were tightly regulated by the government. To obtain a license, the captains had to be men “innocent of any fraud” and their ships “seaworthy, and properly and sufficiently fitted” to assist vessels in distress. An admiralty court was established at Key West, where William Marvin served as judge from 1839 to 1863. It was Judge Marvin’s duty to determine an appropriate reward for the wreckers based on the immediate risk to the stranded ship, crew, and passengers, the value of the cargo, the amount of skill required of the wreckers, and the length of the operation.
The housing for the keepers consisted of a two-story duplex for the principal and an assistant keeper, and a second two-story structure, whose top floor served as living quarters for a second assistant keeper and whose ground floor was used as a communal kitchen. Other structures at the station included a two-story, freestanding brick oil house, and two brick cisterns, which collected the rainwater from the roofs of the two dwellings.
The first head keeper was Benjamin H. Kerr, who was transferred to Loggerhead Key Lighthouse after nine years of service at Garden Key Lighthouse. In a report filed in 1860, G. Phillips, who was stationed at Fort Jefferson, recounted the ‘incident’ that occurred at Loggerhead Key. The two assistants at the lighthouse were not enamored with Kerr, and, at that time, neither were Kerr’s wife and eldest daughter, for the four banded together and made an attempt on the keeper’s life. Kerr managed to defend himself with a carving knife, and then fled to Garden Key in a small boat, accompanied by a sympathetic daughter. The two exiles soon left for Key West, but apparently the parties were later reconciled as Kerr is listed as the head keeper at Loggerhead Key until 1861.
The hurricane of 1873 inflicted heavy damage on the towers at Loggerhead Key and Garden Key. Garden Key Lighthouse was soon replaced with a short iron tower atop Fort Jefferson, and on March 3, 1875 Congress appropriated $75,000 for rebuilding the tower at Loggerhead Key. As the upper portion of the existing tower was in such poor condition that the lighthouse was considered unsafe in high winds, the Lighthouse Board had the following repairs made in 1875:
The old part [of the tower], for a distance of 8 or 9 feet below the lantern, including watch-room walls, has been entirely rebuilt, and the anchors of the lantern extended downward through the entire distance without in any way interfering with the regular exhibition of the light. When it is remembered that the tower is about 150 feet high, the difficulty in making these repairs will be better appreciated. They were accomplished by cutting out the old masonry in narrow vertical sections, replacing each section entire before removing the next.The patched tower was regularly inspected for soundness, and the repairs were found to be so effective that the plans for a replacement tower were abandoned.
A red sector was placed in the lens on April 30, 1893 to alert mariners of a reef just offshore from the lighthouse. Then, in 1909, the Lighthouse Board purchased a second-order bivalve lens for the tower. The large, eye-like lens floated on a pool of mercury, enabling the lens to be easily rotated to produce a white flash every twenty seconds. Mariners reported that confusing, secondary flashes were produced by the new lens. It was determined that the undesirable flashes were caused by direct light from the lamp passing between the outer rings of the lens’ prisms, and thin vertical copper screens were installed in the lens to correct the problem.
In 1986, the mercury float was damaged and the revolving lens came to a stop. After disposing of the toxic mercury, the Coast Guard replaced the lens with a DCB-24, and then in 1995 with a VRB-25. The classic bivalve lens is on display at the National Aids to Navigation School in Yorktown, Virginia.
The first radiobeacon in Florida was established on Loggerhead Key on December 21, 1927. During thick or foggy weather, the beacon continuously transmitted groups of three dashes for one minute followed by two minutes of silence. The same signal was transmitted in clear weather between 2 and 2:20 and 8 and 8:30, a.m. and p.m.
The two-story keepers’ dwelling burned in 1945 and had to be razed, however, a new one-story, yellow-brick bungalow topped with a hipped roof had been built for the head keeper in 1922-1923 at a cost of $6,498, so housing on the island remained sufficient. The lighthouse was automated in 1987. Today, volunteers stay in the original building that served as a kitchen and dwelling and keep an observant eye on the property. The 1922 bungalow is used by the Coast Guard to house crews during routine maintenance visits to the lighthouse.
Created in 1992, Dry Tortugas National Park encompasses all seven islands in the Dry Tortugas along with the surrounding coral reefs and shoals. As part of the enabling legislation, the lighthouse and other Coast Guard buildings on Loggerhead Key were transferred to the National Park Service, though the Coast Guard is still responsible for the light. The turtles, which continue to return to the island to lay their eggs, can now do so without fear of being turned, harassed, or eaten.
Located on Loggerhead Key, the westernmost key in
Dry Tortugas National Park. The lighthouse is owned by the National Park Service. Grounds open, tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the National Park Service. Grounds open, tower closed.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
At the northern tip of Loggerhead Key is a monument to Alfred Goldsboro Mayor who founded a marine research laboratory on the island for the Carnegie Institute and served as its director for seventeen years. Scientists who worked at the lab are credited with taking the first underwater black and white and color photographs using the nearby reefs as subject matter. A couple of other markers are also found on Loggerhead Key. One near the dock marks the grave of Wally, “A Friend to All," who was brought to the island by the Coast Guard as a pup, and remained until his passing in 1990. Near Wally’s grave is a monument to the Cuban refugee boat Rafaela, which apparently made it to the island on May 20, 2001. The arrival of Cuban refugees in the national park is still quite common. There was a boat of questionable seaworthiness on the beach at Garden Key that had made the ninety-mile voyage from Cuba just days before our visit.
See our List of Lighthouses in Florida
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.