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 American Shoal, FL    
Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.
Description: With the completion of Fowey Rocks Lighthouse in 1878, five offshore lighthouses stood guard over Florida’s reefs between Miami and Key West. In this chain of lights, the greatest distance between any neighboring two was a fifty-mile gap between the lighthouses on Sand Key and Sombrero Key. Establishing a light in this dark void would reduce the largest inter-lighthouse distance to thirty-six miles, a space that when divided by two could reasonably be covered by a first-order lighthouse.

The Lighthouse Board had long envisioned an unbroken string of lights along the Florida Keys, but Congress had denied funding for this missing lighthouse in the lower Keys multiple times. As early as 1855, the board requested resources for a lighthouse, explaining that strong currents in the area tended to push ships towards the reefs. This fact was clearly evidenced by the sinking of the HMS Loo.

Launched around 1706, the Loo patrolled the Carolina coast for the British Navy, fending off Spanish privateers. On one long-range mission, the Loo recaptured the Billander Betty off the coast of Cuba. Together, the two ships set sail for South Carolina, but at 1:15 a.m. on the morning of the second day of their trip north, the vessels found themselves in shallow water and breaking waves. Efforts to escape the shoals failed, and both ships were soon hard aground on the reefs. The captain of the Loo faced court-martial for the wreck, but was acquitted of any wrongdoing when it was determined that the course he steered should have kept the vessel safe from the reefs if not for an unusual contrary current.

American Shoal Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The incident must have been hard for the captain to forget, and it will likely not be forgotten for quite some time as the area now bears the name of the ill-fated vessel, although with a slightly altered spelling – Looe Key.

In 1850, a thirty-eight-foot pole topped with a white barrel was driven into Looe Key to keep vessels clear of the reefs. Two years later, a white screwpile, rising to a height of thirty-six feet, was placed on American Shoal, a few miles southwest of Looe Key. These markers were quite beneficial in daylight hours, but offered no assistance to a vessel transiting the area at night.

After repeated appeals by the Lighthouse Board, Congress finally appropriated $75,000 on June 20, 1878 to commence construction of a lighthouse on American Shoal and another $50,000 on March 3, 1890 to finish the job. A substantial amount of this money was returned to the treasury, as the total cost of the lighthouse ended up being $93,664.48.

Rather than design a new tower, the board opted to reuse the architectural plans from Fowey Rocks Lighthouse with only minor changes. Phoenix Iron Company of Trenton, New Jersey was paid $47,000 to fabricate the tower, which was shipped to Florida in late 1879.

With four acres of American Shoal relinquished to the Federal Government by the governor of Florida, everything was set for assembling the tower. To create a work platform at the site, piles of mangrove wood tipped with iron were driven into the coral reef and then topped by wooden decking. Nine iron piles, one central pile surrounded by eight arranged in an octagon, were sunk ten feet into the reef to create the lighthouse’s foundation. Inside additional piles, which sloped upward from the foundation to the watchroom, a two-story, eight-sided dwelling was constructed. The tower was different from the one at Fowey Rocks in three ways:

  1. The dwelling was painted brown rather than white.
  2. The cap on the lantern room at American Shoal was the typical Chinaman’s Hat style, rather than the graceful bell-shaped cap used at Fowey Rocks.
  3. The vertical metal bars or mullions, which separated the panes of glass in the lantern room, were aligned across the three horizontal tiers of panes at Fowey Rocks, while at American Shoal, the mullions in the center band of glass planes were offset from the levels above and below.

The first-order Fresnel lens used in American Shoal Lighthouse consisted of twenty-four vertical bulls-eyes sections and was manufactured in 1874 by Henry-Lepaute of Paris. Resting on thirty-nine 1.5 inch ball bearings, the lens rotated once every two minutes to produce a flash every five seconds. As head keeper, William Bates, after arriving at the new tower from Sombrero Key Lighthouse, performed the inaugural lighting on July 15, 1880.

Each member of the first crew assigned to American Shoal Lighthouse was transferred from another offshore tower. Perhaps this was a prudent measure since not everyone was cut out for this isolated life. As pointed out by coastguardsman and lighthouse historian David Cipra, “Few people even remotely realize what isolation means to the men living under restricted conditions, such as prevailed on these lighthouse stations. Unless adequate measures are taken to neutralize the ill effects it has on the men, rancor, hostility, and even enmity of the most serious nature may result.” Bates’ assistant keepers were Dudley Richardson and Henry Johnson, who respectively had been transferred from the lighthouses at Alligator Reef and Sombrero Key.

American Shoal Lighthouse received several enhancements over the years. Red glass panes were added to the lantern room on April 30, 1893 to indicate the sectors where dangerous reefs were located. An oil house was built and suspended on iron rods below the dwelling in 1899. The tower's light source was upgraded to an incandescent oil vapor system in 1912, eliminating the need to keep a wick meticulously trimmed.

In 1929, a generous woman in Key West gave radio sets to the keepers at the American Shoal, Sombrero Key, Alligator Reef, and Carysfort Reef lighthouse as a Christmas present. Armed with these wireless wonders, the keepers could stay apprised of the latest news and weather reports, and even catch broadcasts of church services on Sundays. In showing his appreciation for the gift, a keeper at American Shoal Lighthouse wrote:

At other times when a President was elected sometimes it has been one month before we knew who was elected; this time when Secretary Hoover was elected and it was announced to the world we heard it as soon as anybody else. The last two big fights when it was announced who was champion we heard it. We listened also to ministers preaching, and there is singing; it is almost the same as being in church.

George Maroney was stationed on American Shoal Lighthouse for almost two years starting in April of 1955. At that time, there were four coastguardsmen assigned to the station, with three on duty each week and the fourth on compensatory leave. As the four-legged platform adjacent to the lighthouse was not yet in place, access to the station was via a walkway off the now-missing lower deck from which a Jacob’s ladder was suspended. The station’s twenty-three-foot motorboat hung from davits on the tower's second level and had to be cranked up by hand. Maroney recalls that the lighthouse was not the most comfortable place to live, as the only source of heat was the oven in the kitchen and the station's outhouse was cantilevered over the water from the lower deck. The only TV they could pick up was from Cuba, which made the programs a bit difficult to understand.

As technology continued to evolve, the keepers and Fresnel lens were soon replaced with an automated beacon, and Coast Guard personnel were removed from American Shoal Lighthouse in 1963. The lighthouse has remained vacant ever since, except for a five-month span (July through November) during the Mariel refugee crisis in 1980.

During the first part of that year, several groups of Cubans forced their way onto the grounds of the Venezuelan and Peruvian Embassies seeking asylum. In April, the Cuban government announced that anyone wishing to leave the country should go to the Peruvian Embassy. In response, a crowd of over 10,000 flooded into the compound, forcing latecomers to find a spot atop the embassy or a perch in a tree. A few weeks later, Castro surprisingly opened the doors of freedom to anyone wishing to leave the country from the port of Mariel.

Over the next several months, more than 100,000 Cubans would make the ninety-mile trip across open waters to Florida. Anxious relatives in the U.S. formed a freedom flotilla to retrieve family members. Many vessels making the trip were not well-suited for the lengthy voyage, and the U.S. Coast Guard was kept busy responding to distress calls.

It was during this exodus, that the lighthouses at American Shoal, Sombrero Reef, and Alligator Reef were remanned by the Coast Guard as lookout towers. American Shoal lighthouse had deteriorated significantly since it was automated, and surprisingly a lot of the damage was by termites, who had been whittling away on the dwelling’s wooden interior. Quick repairs were made, and a crew assigned to the lighthouse. A member of the team was always on watch and in regular radio communication with the other towers.

In 1981, Looe Key, with its live coral and teaming sea life, was designated a marine sanctuary. American Shoal Lighthouse is still active today, helping keep the reef safe from the hulls of passing vessels.

Head Keepers: William Bates (1880 – 1889), Henry P. Weatherford (1899 – 1905), Alfred A. Berghill (1905 – 1907), Arthur C.E. Hamblett (1907 – 1908), John Peterson (1908 – 1910), William H. Curry (1910 – at least 1915), Richard C. Roberts (at least 1921 – at least 1936), James O. Duncan (at least 1940), Willard Lee Almyda (1941 – 1946).

References

  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. Annual Report of the Commissioner of Lighthouses, various years.
  3. Lighthouse Service Bulletin, various years.
  4. Lighthouses of the Florida Keys, Love Dean, 1998.

Location: Located on American Shoal, 6.5 miles south of Sugarloaf Beach.
Latitude: 24.52512
Longitude: -81.51942

For a larger map of American Shoal Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: For a distant view of the lighthouse from land, turn south onto Sugarloaf Boulevard from the Overseas Highway at Mile Marker 17. When the road tees after 2.6 miles, turn right and drive 2.5 miles to a small bridge over Sugarloaf Creek from where you can see the lighthouse on a clear day.

To get a close-up view of the tower, a boat or plane ride is necessary. Florida Keys Reef Lights Foundation offers a trip to a couple of the reef lights each December. Check their Events page for more information.

The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Tower closed.

Find the closest hotels to American Shoal Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
In 1989, the U.S. Postal Service issued a series of lighthouse stamps, one of which featured the American Shoal Lighthouse. It has been noted that the stamp has two problems: 1) the lighthouse is listed as American Shoals, and 2) a Coast Guard cutter is shown passing near the lighthouse in water that would be too shallow for such a vessel. As of 2003, the stamp has one more problem. The lighthouse has been painted a solid red, an abrupt change from its historic coloring of reddish-brown with the central column containing the spiral staircase painted a contrasting white.

I've heard that American Shoal is named for the ship America, which sank on the reef while en route to the Dry Tortugas with a load of granite for use in the construction of Fort Jefferson, but I haven't been able to corroborate the story.


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