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 Sombrero Key, FL    
Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.
Description: General George Meade is widely known as the leader of the Union forces responsible for the defeat of Robert E. Lee’s Confederates at Gettysburg. Most accounts of Meade’s life focus almost exclusively on his service during the Civil War, neglecting his lengthier career as an engineer. Before protecting the lives of his fellow Northerners, Meade had spent several years protecting the lives of mariners.

Born on December 31, 1815 in Cadiz, Spain, where his father was working as a U.S. naval agent, Meade was enrolled at West Point in 1831 at a youthful age. Four years later, he graduated nineteenth in his class. Meade served a brief period in the Army, before resigning and working as a survey engineer, but wanting a steadier income for his new wife and family, Meade reenlisted in 1842 and was assigned to the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers.

Sombrero Key Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
As early as 1848, Meade became involved in lighthouse construction, working with his superior Major Hartman Bache on the original screwpile Brandywine Lighthouse in Delaware Bay. Later, Meade would survey the Florida Reefs, and when the engineer in charge of constructing Carysfort Reef Lighthouse died, Meade was sent to take his place. After successfully completing that project, Meade’s expertise on offshore lighthouses was applied to the construction of Sand Key Lighthouse. Meade then proposed the erection of a lighthouse off Vaca Key, near the center of the dark void found between Carysfort and Sand Key Lighthouses. Meade’s third reef lighthouse, Sombrero Key Lighthouse, would be his tallest and final reef light.

Surprisingly, Meade actually proposed a masonry tower for Sombrero Reef, believing that it would be able to withstand the force of the sea. However, after considering the enormous expense required to construct a submarine masonry foundation for such a tower, Meade stuck with a skeletal-style design. During his career, Meade did have an opportunity to construct several masonry towers, including the tall, sleek lighthouses of Barnegat, Absecon, and Cape May, New Jersey, along with Florida’s Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse.

The site selected for the lighthouse had been named Cayo Sombrero by the Spanish, but was also known as Dry Bank since part of the reef frequently protruded above the water. A red and white barrel, mounted atop a thirty-six-foot iron pole, had been placed on the treacherous reef as a day beacon in 1852, the same year Congress appropriated $35,000 to start work on the lighthouse. Two years later, Meade submitted plans and a budget for Sombrero Key Lighthouse. The tower’s foundation would consist of eight iron piles placed at the corners of an octagon and driven through massive cast-iron disks to a depth of ten feet, with a ninth pile at the center, just as at Carysfort Reef. Part of the concern in building an iron reef tower was how the piles near the water line would hold up to the alternating exposure to water and air. After calculating the necessary diameter of the foundation piles required to support the tower, Meade figured an extra inch should be added for every one hundred years the tower would stand. For further protection against corrosion, all iron that would normally be exposed to salt water was galvanized. Meade's estimated cost for the lighthouse was $107,641.46.

The iron parts for the lighthouse were manufactured by I. P. Morris and Company in Philadelphia and then shipped to Duck Key, which would serve as the headquarters for the project. Preparation work began at the site in 1856, after Congress had provided $65,000 the previous year to continue the project, but a hurricane swept through the area on August 27 and 28, ruining the temporary platform. Work began anew the following year. Six sections of pilings, supported by cross braces, ran from the foundation pilings to the lantern room. A one-story, thirty-foot-square keepers’ dwelling, built of quarter-inch boiler iron and consisting of four rooms, was built on a platform at the bottom of the second section of pilings, forty feet above the water. The keepers could access the lantern room via an enclosed central circular stairway, or descend to the water using a ladder. With a focal plane of 142 feet, Sombrero Key Lighthouse is the tallest of Florida's six reef lights.

A fixed, first-order lens was acquired from Henry-Lepaute of Paris for $20,000, bringing the total cost of the lighthouse to just over $153,000. Joseph Bethel was transferred from Garden Key Light in the Dry Tortugas to become the first head keeper responsible for the light at Sombrero Key. His wife, Nicholosa, was the daughter of Michael and Barbara Mabrity, both keepers at Key West. The Bethel’s son William and his wife would also later serve at Key West. Joseph Bethel lit Sombrero Key light for the first time on March 17th, 1858, a routine he would repeat often during his year at the lighthouse. Keeper Bethel had his family with him at the lighthouse, and in 1859, after the lighthouse ran out of water, Bethel was ordered to send his family ashore. Rather than live apart, Bethel resigned, but tragically he wouldn't spend too much more time with his family, as he and his son perished when the schooner Sarah Bartlett wrecked off Louisiana in 1859.

Lens from Sombrero Key Lighthouse
Reaching the lighthouse safely in rough seas was not a simple task. The following excerpt from the station’s journal details the return voyage of first assistant Richard White, who sailed to Key West to collect his quarterly allowance in July 1873:

We saw nothing more of him or the boat until August 6th at 10:00 A.M. We discovered the boat was coming from Hogg Key. It was blowing fresh and began to be getting squally. At 10:30 we saw the boat when it was struck by a squall and instantly capsized. After a few minutes, the squall passed over. We saw the man floating on the collapsed boom and the sail of the boat. The boat was capsized, still floating a few yards away from him. He was very visible, for at the time of the accident he was not over one and a half miles from the lighthouse. The tide set in toward us, till we could distinctly see his features and could he have assisted the spar that bore him up by swimming in the least he would have most assuredly reached the house. The tide turned against him and swept him in a west-southwest direction about four miles from us. This was about 3:30 P.M. at which time we lost sight of him altogether.
Not having a second vessel with which to attempt a rescue, the keepers on the tower tried in vain to hail vessels in the area. Finally, on the following day the steamer Clyde answered the tower’s distress signal. By that time though, all the steamer could do was carry notice of the tragedy to the lighthouse official in Key West.

Thanks to the efforts of head keepers Miguel Fabal and William H. Pierce and their assistants, Sombrero Key Lighthouse was able to fly the lighthouse efficiency flag from 1917 through 1922, signifying that it was the model station in the district.

During a conference of lighthouse officers in 1926, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover made the following appeal to the press after hearing that most lighthouse keepers were without radios: “I don’t know of any of other class of shut-ins who are more entitled to such aid. The Government does not pay them any too well, and the instruments which they can hardly afford are in many cases their only means of keeping in touch with the world.”

A donated radio was sent to Sombrero Key Lighthouse shortly thereafter, and one of its keepers sent the following letter expressing his appreciation for the gift.

I find a great deal of pleasure and educational features in the benefits derived from the donated radio set at our station. There is also possible the reception of divine services which are enjoyed by the station personnel, the services of the Men’s Bible Class at Miami, Fla, every Sunday morning being eagerly looked forward to, as it always comes in fine. When radio weather is favorable, concerts, political speeches, operas, and other enjoyable programs are very much appreciated by all of us. When bad weather or storms are in the vicinity, our set keeps us posted as to conditions, progress of the storm, etc., and enables us to take all necessary precautions, give messages to any vessels in the immediate locality, and follow the progress of the hurricane after it passes. By the medium of the radio we are kept in touch with the news of the country, and this is the only means of procuring same, as newspapers are not accessible. I know I speak for the three keepers of Sombrero Key Lighthouse when I say we are very thankful for this very useful and entertaining gift.

Keeper Rudolph Rieke and First Assistant Michael Eichhoff were alone on the lighthouse on October 18, 1893, when Eichhoff gave a groan and collapsed while cooking on the lower platform. Rieke found his assistant in a stupor and promptly hoisted a distress signal. Later that day, the Comal passed the station so close that Rieke could read its name and see one of its officer examining the lighthouses with marine glasses. Despite the inverted flag flying at half-mast from the lighthouse, the Comal didn't stop nor make any report of the matter. Eichhoff expired the following day, and two days later, Rieke was forced to sew the corpse up in a hammock, read a burial service, and commit the body to the sea. Keeper Rieke was alone on the light for nine days before the second assistant returned.

Another fatal return trip to the lighthouse occurred in August of 1959, when Seaman Willis Parker was making his way back to the lighthouse after having transported a special work crew back to Key West. Boatswain’s mate Furman Williamson, who was alone at the lighthouse, lowered the large block and hook to retrieve the launch from the water. When it was within reach, Parker grabbed the block, but before he could attach the hook to the boat’s line, a wave lifted the vessel up and away from the tower. Instinctively, Parker grabbed onto the block, which then swung back like a pendulum towards the tower ramming his head into a piling and causing him to fall into the water. Williamson quickly threw him a life ring, to which Parker was able to cling for a couple of moments before slipping below the waves. Again, the keeper aboard the tower could only watch in horror. The following day, Parker’s body was found by a member of the search party – his brother.

The following year, personnel were pulled from the lighthouse, and the light was automated. The Fresnel lens was removed from the lantern room in 1982, and is now on display at Key West Lighthouse.

Sombrero Reef is a popular dive and snorkel site, and boats are regularly sprinkled about the lighthouse. Each day, as the sun slips into the water, Sombrero Light comes to life, emitting a white flash every ten seconds. Two red sectors, added to the lantern in 1893, change a portion of the white light to red, informing vessels where the still-dangerous reef lies.

Head Keepers: Joseph Bethel (1858 – 1859), Joseph F. Papy (1859 – 1860), Anthony Davis (1860 – 1862), James Bryson (1862 – 1864), John H. Singleton (1864 – 1866), John Carroll (1866 – 1870), Peter Crocker (1870 – 1872), Adolphus A. Seymour (1872 – 1873), Jeremiah Buckley (1873 – 1881), Thomas J. Pinder (1881 – 1884), Melville Evans Spencer (1884 – 1889), Rudolph Rieke (1889 – 1904), John Watkins (1904 – at least 1913), Miguel Fabal (1915 – 1919), William H. Pierce (1919 – at least 1933), Edward P. Johnson (at least 1935 – at least 1940).

References

  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. Lighthouse Service Bulletin, various years.
  3. "Crusoe in a Lighthouse," The Philadelphia Record, November 6, 1893.
  4. Lighthouses of the Florida Keys, Love Dean, 1998.

Location: Located roughly five miles south of the eastern end of the 7-mile bridge near Marathon.
Latitude: 24.62794
Longitude: -81.11094

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


Travel Instructions: A distant view is possible from the eastern end of the 7-mile bridge near Marathon or from Sombrero Beach. To reach Sombrero Beach, turn south on Sombrero Beach Boulevard at Mile Marker 50 in Marathon and follow the road for two miles to the beach, where you will find a nice park and a decent view of the Sombrero Lighthouse.

The lighthouse is best visited by boat or plane. Spirit Snorkeling and Starfish Snorkeling offers trips to the Sombrero Reef Marine Sanctuary and lighthouse.

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 Sombrero Key Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
If you can't make it out to the Sombrero Key Lighthouse, there is another "lighthouse" in Marathon that is more accessible. Faro Blanco Marine Resort, located at Mile Marker 48, has an attractive octagonal lighthouse in their marina. At night, the tower's aerobeacon revolves, emitting a powerful beam of light.

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