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.
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:
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, measuring fourteen by fourteen by seven feet, was built and suspended on iron rods below the dwelling in 1899, and in 1912, the tower’s light source was upgraded to an incandescent oil vapor system, 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 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.
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 was deactivated in 2015, when a thirty-foot-tall tower, erected nearby and topped by an automated light, took over the function of warning mariners of the submerged dangers in the area.