Photo from
Sombrero Reef LighthouseRichard White died while collecting his paycheck. In July 1873, the assistant keeper at Sombrero Lighthouse was on his way back from Key West with his quarterly allowance when a squall capsized his sailboat just a mile and a half from the lighthouse.

His co-workers watched helplessly from the railing as White clung to the boom before he was swept out to sea.

This Sunday, the Reef Lighthouse Organization will unveil a new sign at Sombrero Beach celebrating the 150th birthday of the Florida Keys’ tallest lighthouse. The ceremony begins at noon with a program that includes a tribute to the fallen ‘keepers of the lighthouse flame and a short history of the 160’ steel structure.’

In her book, Lighthouses of the Florida Keys, author Love Dean takes readers on a historical and cultural tour of Florida’s most captivating and picturesque lighthouses and devotes a thick chapter to one of Marathon’s most recognizable features. (The book is available as a resource at the Monroe County Public Library and available for sale at any reputable book outlet.)

Long before Henry Flagler’s train chugged down the Overseas Railroad, modern engineers were already battling the hurricanes, mosquitoes and extreme conditions to transform America’s treacherous island chain into an inhabitable tropical paradise.

One of the first stamps of the modern era came in the form of lighthouses. These days GPS navigation systems, polarized sunglasses and detailed charts help captains stay off the reef, but the lighthouses of the Florida Keys continue to serve a purpose – as popular dive sites and iconic images of a celebrated past.

In the mid 1850s, an agent for the Boston underwriters at Key West estimated the value of ships grounded on the reef of the Florida Keys at $4.5 million. “Almost every week some unaccountable one occurs,” he wrote.

So the Federal Government stepped in and the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers dispatched George Meade to engineer lighthouses to help keep the vessels off the reef. (For financial reasons, not environmental concerns.)

The lighthouse blinked on for the first time on March 17, 1958 with a total cost of $155,158.81.

The lighthouse’s scaffolding was set on nine, 12” concrete pilings and sunk ten feet into the coral. Above the first open air platform that functioned as a workspace was a 1200 sq ft keeper’s home built forty feet above normal sea level. The ‘home’ contained four rooms with boilerplate walls outfitted with wood paneling. A ladder could be raised and lowered to the water. 133 enclosed steps led to the light at the top of the tower, which was fitted with a first order Frensel lens that cost the Lighthouse Board $20,000. (Currently the lens is on display at the Key West Lighthouse Museum.)

The last keeper to die out at Sombrero was killed in 1960 when waves sent the block (and tackle) used to fasten the launch crashing into the head of Coast Guardsman Willis Parker. The Coast Guard finally automated the lighthouse later that year after two coasties were trapped on the lighthouse during Hurricane Donna.

When the City of Marathon incorporated ten years ago, the Sombrero Lighthouse was placed in the official seal and just recently the Greater Marathon Chamber of Commerce unveiled the logo for the “Boating Destination of the Florida Keys.” Set against the Seven Mile Bridge, palms, boat and setting sun and is the Sombrero Lighthouse – one of the most popular dive spots in the Keys and an iconic image that will be honored this weekend on Sombrero Beach.

References:  Lighthouse of the Florida Keys, by Love Dean

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