Lighthouse Friends Home Page
 Alligator Reef, FL    
Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.
Description: On November 2nd, 1820, the USS Alligator, the newest member of the fledgling U.S. Navy, was launched at Boston, Massachusetts. Measuring eighty-six feet from bow to stern, the schooner was outfitted with twelve guns to provide a little authority. During 1821, the vessel made two voyages to the west coast of Africa to intercept ships engaged in the by then illegal importation of slaves to the United States and to secure territory for the repatriation of former slaves. The following year, the Alligator was dispatched to the West Indies under the command of Lieutenant William H. Allen to suppress piracy.

While at anchor in the harbor at Matanzas on Cuba’s northeast coast, Lieutenant Allen was informed that pirates were holding several ships for ransom in a nearby bay. The following morning, the Alligator surprised the pirates and dispatched its launches to confront them. In the ensuing battle, Lieutenant Allen took two musket balls but led his comrades to a rout of the pirates before succumbing to his wounds. Now under the command of Lieutenant John M. Dale, the Alligator escorted the small flotilla of liberated vessels north to the states.

Buy at Art.com
Buy at Art.com
With ships of varying speeds, keeping them together proved difficult, and the Alligator had to occasionally tack back and forth to slow her progress. By the evening of November 19, 1821 no other ships were in sight. In the darkness, a lead line was thrown out at regular intervals to measure the depth of the surrounding water. Notwithstanding this precaution, at 9:30 p.m. the vessel ran aground on Matacumbee Reef at a speed of about five knots. Several heavy items were tossed overboard in a futile attempt to refloat the ship. Finally, around midday on November 21, the Anna Maria, one of the vessels traveling with the Alligator, was sighted and successfully hailed. All government property, including the cannons, was transferred to the Anna Maria and the unfortunate Alligator was set afire to prevent pirates from claiming her. The reef was subsequently known as Alligator Reef in honor of its victim. A few surviving hull timbers from the Alligator still lie in shallow water just offshore from Islamorada.

The first effort to mark the dangerous reef was made in 1852 by Lieutenant James Totten of the U.S. Army Coast Survey. Under his direction, one of fifteen iron shaft daymarkers being placed along the reefs was erected on a screwpile foundation at Alligator Reef and topped by a black barrel. Five years later, the barrel was replaced by a white hoop-iron cylinder and a red vane displaying the letter "C" to uniquely identify the reef.

After providing a written response to thirteen questions posed by the Lighthouse Board, M. Carrington Watkins, inspector for the seventh district, offered the following recommendation in 1855:

I cannot press upon the board with too much zeal the necessity of a light-house on Alligator reef; four vessels have been wrecked there, and in the neighborhood, in the last four months; when, if there had been a light, the vessels could have rounded the point of reef and come to in a good roadstead, in from six to three fathoms.

Two years later, the Lighthouse Board petitioned Congress for an iron skeletal lighthouse for Alligator Reef. Congress failed to make the necessary appropriations that year, and its attentions were soon turned elsewhere as the nation spent the next decade planning for, fighting in, and recovering from the Civil War.

The Lighthouse Board resurrected its request for Alligator Reef Lighthouse in 1867. The petition was repeated the next two years, and the following need for the lighthouse was provided.

Alligator Reef forms a kind of elbow or turning point for vessels passing either way through the Florida Pass. It is about midway between Carysfort Reef and Dry Bank light-houses, sixty-one nautical miles distant the one from the other, leaving between them an unlighted space of upwards of thirty miles for the navigator to grope his way through, and having to contend against strong and irregular currents, which are greatly influenced by the prevailing winds, by the tides, and by the general character and state of the weather. With the establishment of this light on the border of the reefs, navigation around Cape Florida from the Gulf of Mexico will, with the other aids to navigation, be made comparatively easy and safe, with ordinary attention and care.
On July 15, 1870 Congress finally responded with $100,000 to start construction. Indian Key, situated four miles from the reef, was selected as the staging area for the construction effort and was equipped with a wharf, storage facilities, and lodging and a cistern for the laborers.

The iron pile lighthouse was forged by Paulding Kemble of Cold Spring, New York, and then transported to Indian Key. The lighthouse would be situated thirty yards from daymarker "C," and about two hundred yards from the deep Gulf Stream waters.

To receive the lighthouse, the reef was leveled and nine heavy cast-iron disks were arranged on the coral, eight at the corners of an octagon and one at its center. The foundation piles that would pass through the disks were twenty-six feet in length and twelve inches in diameter. A steam-powered pile driver raised a two-thousand-pound “hammer” eighteen feet in the air before gravity brought it crashing down on the pile. Each blow would drive the pile about an inch further in its ten-foot descent into the coral.

Atop the vertical foundation piles, six lengths of piles slopped upwards to the lantern and watch rooms. Running horizontally and diagonally between the piles, a network of braces held the structures together like the filaments in a spider’s web. A one-story square dwelling was built on a platform high above the water to keep it safe from even mountainous seas. A spiral staircase sheathed with iron served as the tower’s spine, providing structural support and linking the dwelling to the lantern room, over 130 feet above the water.

After $185,000 had been expended in its construction, the lighthouse was placed into service on November 25, 1873. A revolving first-order Fresnel lens filled the lantern room and produced a scintillating series of flashes separated by five seconds and with every sixth flash red. In July 1880, additional ruby panels were installed on the lens to change its characteristic so every third flash was red. New mineral-oil lamps were supplied to the station in 1884 to take the place of the lard-oil lamps, and an oil room, large enough to hold a year's supply, was built and hung beneath the dwelling. Red sectors were added to the lantern room in 1891 to mark nearby reefs.

In 1929, Hebert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce, on learning that many remote lighthouses had no radio, made an appeal through the press, saying, “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.” When the keeper at Alligator Reef Lighthouse received his radio, he expressed the joy it brought to him: “I just think it is grand to enjoy church sermons and all the good lectures and grand music in the lone hours of the night.”

Alligator Reef Lighthouse warned ships of the invisible danger posed by the submerged reef, but early on there was little to no warning of another danger that threatened ship traffic and even the crew on the lighthouse – hurricanes. The most devastating storm to strike Alligator Reef Lighthouse spoiled the Labor Day festivities of 1935. Keeper Jones A. Pervis left a detailed account of the event.

September 1st Quiet duty

2 Securing against tropical hurricanes. On the afternoon of the second day the Barometer began falling. Normal rating 29.98 fell as low as 27.35 by 9:30 P.M. Same day 10 P.M. the barometer began to rise and on the third day of this month at one o’clock P.M. the barometer reading was 29.38 with very bad rainy weather. Strong wind from the south the second day. The wind was from the north east blowing a fresh breeze and increased to gale force by 4 P.M. 6 P.M. was a regular hurricane. 6:30 P.M. while lighting the lamp for the night, the lantern glass began to break, red sectors began to break, flying glass was danger to life. I left the watch room and hurried to living quarters, the doors began to break in, the keeper, and second assistant room, was badly damaged to doors and water soaked beds and clothing. I managed to save doors in first assistant room, and the kitchen, the lens was completely wrecked, and other damage done by wind and water to the watch room, and property there in. The row boat washed away about 8 P.M. The launch no. 34 was in fair condition at 9:30 P.M. This was the last time we were able to be out side until the next day. The platform landing was completely wrecked and launch no. 34 gone. This is the worst hurricane I have experienced during the eleven years of service. The light will be out of commission until temporarily repaired.
A temporary lantern was delivered to the station on September 5, and by that night, the light was back in service.

Accompanied with winds in excess of 200 mph, the hurricane devastated the nearby keys. 423 people lost their lives in the storm - 163 civilians and 259 World War I veterans who were employed in the area building a bridge to replace the ferry boats. As the Upper Keys were not densely populated in 1935, the death toll represented nearly 25% of the population. The hurricane produced the lowest barometric reading ever recorded in the U.S.: 26.35.

When a hurricane wasn’t threatening the tower, the life of a keeper could be relaxing. Dick Gooravin served on the reef in the 1950s, after it came under the control of the Coast Guard in 1939, and described a more idyllic and likely more typical time at the lighthouse: “The water around the lighthouse on most days was calm and gin clear. You could see the formation of the reefs perfectly, the sand spots in between, and the deep waters of the Gulf Stream just a few hundred yards away. When you looked down you would see all kinds of fish. There were always lots of barracudas cruising lazily around the lighthouse.” A few hours before dinner, a keeper, equipped with a spear, simply had to step of his back porch to procure his choice of a main course: lobster, snapper, or yellow-tail.

In 1963, the lighthouse was automated. The coasguardsmen must have been a bit disappointed to leave their home with an elevated 360° ocean view, but at least no one would have to endure another hurricane trapped on the lighthouse.

The central portion of the Alligator Reef Lighthouse is kept a bright white, a striking contrast to the black lantern, black foundation piles, and the surrounding aquamarine waters, which still provide plenty of interest for fishermen, snorkelers, and divers. If you don't make an excursion out to the lighthouse, keep an eye out for it when you are near Islamorada as the lighthouse is the most readily visible of Florida’s reef lights from the overseas highway.

Head Keepers: George R. Billberry (1873 – 1885), Charles A. Roberts (1885 – 1889), Miguel Fabel (1889 – 1890), Edgar J. Russel (1890 – 1907), William T. Stran (1907 – at least 1915), Thomas M. Kelly (1917 – 1932), Hezekiah Pierce (1932 - ), Jones A. Pervis (at least 1935 – at least 1940).

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 roughly three miles south of the southern end of Upper Matecumbe Key.
Latitude: 24.85179
Longitude: -80.61885

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


Travel Instructions: Distant views of the Alligator Reef Lighthouse are possible from Highway 1 between Mile Markers 77 and 80. One visitor recommended the upper level of the dock at Bud N Mary's Marina just west of Mile Marker 80. The best views of the lighthouse come by boat or plane. We flew over the lighthouse with Dean International Inc. 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 Alligator Reef Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
The Florida Keys Memorial, also known as the Hurricane Monument, is located in Islamorada at Mile Marker 81.5 (across from the library). The plaque on the monument reads "Dedicated to the memory of the Civilians and War Veterans whose lives were lost in the hurricane of September second 1935." In 1937, the cremated remains of 300 victims were placed in the tiled crypt in front of the monument. The carved piece in the monument shows coconut palm trees bending in a hurricane with turbulent waters shown at the foot of the trunks. Besides prematurely ending the lives of hundreds of victims, the hurricane also dealt a final blow to Flagler's Florida East Coast Railway that had been extended to Key West. Remains of the railway can been seen alongside Highway 1 throughout the keys.

Seven miles northeast of Alligator Reef Lighthouse is Hen and Chickens Shoal Light, a steel pyramidal structure standing thirty-five feet tall and exhibiting a red flash every 2.5 seconds. Between Alligator Reef Lighthouse and Sombrero Key Lighthouse is Tennessee Reef Lighthouse another example of the unmanned lights that were established along the keys to compliment the staffed lighthouses. Tennessee Reef Lighthouse displays a white flash every four seconds. (Photograph of Tennessee Reef contributed by JACLAY.)

A newspaper account says that two of the red sectors, forty inches high and twenty-four inches wide, that were blown from the lantern room atop Alligator Reef Lighthouse landed uncracked and unbroken on the beach at Islamadora, six miles away.


See our List of Lighthouses in Florida

The lighthouses The Maps Our friends Lighthouse Resources Lighthouse Events Lighthouse Store Lighthouse Posters
Copyright © 2001- Lighthousefriends.com
Send us an e-mail - please note that lighthousefriends.com is not affiliated with any lighthouse

Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.