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The History of Sand Key Lighthouse and the Key West Wreckers

The historic lighthouses along the Florida Keys are not like those that you’ll see in other places along the coast. Except for the small tower in downtown Key West, the most notable ones are located far offshore.

Since the first Spanish galleons began plying the waters of the Gulf Stream in the 1500s, the Florida Reef has proven a formidable foe.

While the Gulf Stream current provides a high-speed boost for ships traveling eastbound out of the western Caribbean or from Havana, a deadly, keel-crunching reef lies invisible, right under the surface at the edge of the deep water.

Even under good conditions, mariners would stray onto the invisible reef. In storms, those overladen ships could barely make way and were often washed aground on the reef.

Of course, part of the problem was in the navigational information available at the time. They didn’t have GPS or moving map displays. The paper charts that the ships carried were crude drawings that didn’t depict much more than prominent landmasses.

Why Did Pirates and Wreckers Live in the Florida Keys?

Today, a similarity is drawn between wreckers and pirates. But in truth, the two occupations were drastically different. Pirates unlawfully captured ships at sea, stealing their cargo and ships and sometimes murdering the crew. 

Wreckers lived ashore and responded to grounded vessels. When a ship struck the reefs off of the Florida Keys, the locals would rally to their small boats and set out to rescue the ship. They would work tirelessly to save the crew and passengers, and if the conditions were good, the ship too. 

This often meant offloading the cargo onto other vessels to refloat the vessel. However, if the ship was too severely damaged, it was left on the reef while the people and cargo were ferried back to shore. 

Wreckers weren’t necessarily in it for the money—but a reward for their efforts was expected. And, of course, the activity was controversial from the get-go. In fact, local courts had to set up rules to adjudicate wreckers. Their boats were even licensed. The first wreckers in the Keys were the native tribes who lived here.

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On several occasions, the locals were conscripted by the Spanish to help recover goods from sunken ships. At least eight years of salvage work was done to recover as much as possible from the 1622 Spanish treasure fleet, including the famous Atocha. Wrecking was not solely a Florida Keys occupation. The locals here learned their skills from the Bahamians. 

While many wreckers were honest in their endeavors, there are stories of those who set up false navigation lights to confuse ship captains and lead them onto the reef. That sort of wrecking was specifically made illegal and punishable by death in Key West, thanks to an 1823 law.

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Florida Keys Lighthouses

Eventually, in the interests of maritime safety and commerce, the US Congress appointed money to construct a series of lighthouses along the Florida Reef.  Like the one installed at Sand Key in 1827, some of the first lighthouses were traditional brick structures.

Unfortunately, that first tower was downed in the 1846 Havana Hurricane. But, if you’re lucky, you might find some brick rubble from it while snorkeling today.  Later structures had a skeletal pyramid made of cast iron. This open metal structure proved more durable during storms and in the harsh open-water conditions found offshore on the reefs.

The tower you see today at Sand Key is very much like other lighthouses along the Florida Keys. There are nearly identical structures at Sombrero Reef off of Marathon and Carysfort Reef off of Key Largo. All of them date from the mid-1800s.

The lighthouses and the safety they added to shipping in the Gulf Stream eventually spelled the end of wrecking as a full-fledged industry here in the Keys. The Wrecking License Bureau closed back in 1921.

How to Get to the Sand Key Lighthouse

You can just barely see Sand Key Lighthouse from Key West. The best way to get an up-close view is to hop on a boat and go for a private Key West charter.

Today, those beautiful and historic lighthouses are still used to guide mariners—but more often than not, those boaters are steering toward the tower for a better look! Sand Key lighthouse snorkeling is one of the most popular activities for visitors to Key West. The beautiful clear water and living coral reefs are must-see attractions.

Sand Keys dangerous reefs are still dangerous, but modern technology means that the likelihood of a ship running aground is very low. But snorkeling the reef is not to be missed. You’ll see a wide variety of coral, fish, and wildlife underwater. The historic towering lighthouse only adds to the ambiance of the place.

Can you fish at Sand Key? The small area around the lighthouse and on the reef is a Special Protection Area in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. It is effectively a no-take zone and closed for fishing or lobstering. Outside of the area marked by yellow buoys, fishing is allowed.

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Connect with History and Nature at Sand Key and Key West

If you’re curious about the wrecking days in Key West, check out the 1942 movie Reap the Wild Wind starring John Wayne. Set in 1840, the film provides one look at the hey-days of wrecking.

But the best way to understand the Florida Keys is to see them by boat. So head out on a private snorkeling charter and see Sand Key for yourself.

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