|Sombrero Key, FL|
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.
Meade was born on December 31, 1815 in Cadiz, Spain, where his father was working as a U.S. naval agent. At a youthful age, he was enrolled at West Point in 1831. Four years later, he graduated 19th in his class. Meade served a brief period in the Army, before resigning and working as a survey engineer. Seeking a more steady income for his new wife and family, Meade reenlisted in 1842 and was assigned to the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers.
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.
Two years later, Meade submitted a budget for the Sombrero Key Lighthouse. The tower’s foundation would consist of eight iron piles placed at the corners of an octagon with a ninth 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.
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, but a hurricane swept through the area on August 29, 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, 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.
Reaching the lighthouse safely in rough seas was not a simple task. In July of 1873, first assistant Richard White sailed to Key West to collect his quarterly allowance. The following excerpt from the station’s journal details his return voyage:
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.
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 the use of a radio: “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 the only means of procuring same, as newspapers are not accessible. I know I speak for the three keepers of Sombero Key Lighthouse when I say we are very thankful for this very useful and entertaining gift.
Another fatal return trip to the lighthouse occurred in August of 1959. 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. Parker dropped to 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 removed 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 the 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, the 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.
Located roughly five miles south of the eastern end of the 7-mile bridge
near Marathon. The lighthouse is best visited by boat or plane. We flew over the lighthouse with Fantasy Dan's Airplane Rides, located at the Sugarloaf Airport near MM 17. Fantasy Dan's can be reached at (305) 745-2217. Spirit Snorkeling and Starfish Snorkeling offers trips to the Sombrero Reef Marine Sanctuary and lighthouse.
The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Tower closed.
The lighthouse is best visited by boat or plane. We flew over the lighthouse with Fantasy Dan's Airplane Rides, located at the Sugarloaf Airport near MM 17. Fantasy Dan's can be reached at (305) 745-2217. Spirit Snorkeling and Starfish Snorkeling offers trips to the Sombrero Reef Marine Sanctuary and lighthouse.
The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Tower closed.
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.
See our List of Lighthouses in Florida
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.