First Lit: 1880
Height: 109 feet
Characteristics: White flash every 15 seconds; 2 red sectors
Coordinates: 24°31′30.422″N 81°31′9.898″W
Location: 15 miles east of Key West and 5 miles south of Sugarloaf Key in 4 feet of water
The lighthouse is about 5 miles south of Sugarloaf Key. It is best viewed by boat, but you can see it from the beach on Sugarloaf. If you are on U.S. 1 driving down the Keys, you will want to turn left onto Sugarloaf Blvd. at mile marker 17. Drive about 2 1/2 miles and the road will turn to the right. Go down about another 2 miles to Sugarloaf Beach where you can park and walk out onto the beach. You will be able to see the lighthouse in the distance.
American Shoal Lighthouse, the sixth and final of the Florida Keys reef lighthouses to be installed was constructed and first lit on July 15, 1880. The space between Sombrero Light and Sand Key light was about 50 miles wide. This gap created a dangerous dark spot in the American Shoal/Looe Key reef area of the lower Florida Keys. The Lighthouse Board, recognizing this repeatedly asked Congress to allocate the funds required to build this last lighthouse. It took them over 20 years, but they were finally granted the funds.
American Shoal was built by a company in New Jersey and shipped down piece by piece just like many of the other lighthouses. To save money, they used the same blueprints that were used to build Fowey Rocks a few years earlier. The only differences between the two has to do with style. Fowey Rocks has a Victorian flair that was toned down a bit for American Shoal. You can see it in the roof of the lantern room on top and the window panes.
The two story living quarters has four bedrooms. There was a crew of four. They alternated three on duty, one off. An article by the lighthousefriends.com describes the amenities as follows: “…the lighthouse was not the most comfortable place to live, as the only source of heat was the oven in the kitchen and the station’s outhouse was cantilevered over the water from the lower deck. The only TV they could pick up was from Cuba, which made the programs a bit difficult to understand.”
It wasn’t until 1929, almost 50 years after it had been built, that there was any communication device at the lighthouse. A generous Key West woman gave the lighthouse radio sets for Christmas. She wanted them to be able to keep up with current news and weather and listen to church services on Sundays.
Philanthropy was alive and well here in Key West almost 100 years ago, not much has changed 🙂
The lighthouse was automated in 1963 making it unnecessary for anyone to live there. It has been vacant since then except for one 5 month period back in 1980 during the Mariel refugee crisis. In April of 1980, the Cuban government announced that if anyone wanted to leave Cuba they were to report to the Peruvian Embassy. Over 10,000 people showed up. Fidel Castro surprised everyone when he gave permission for anyone who wanted to leave the country to go. As you know from history, over 100,000 Cubans took him up on his offer and made the voyage across the Florida Straits to Florida. The US Coastguard was overwhelmed with distress calls from boats not able to successfully make the crossing.
They turned the lighthouse along with the Sombrero Reef and Alligator Reef lighthouses into manned lookout towers.
Today American Shoal Lighthouse sits in the middle of Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary and still actively warns mariners of the dangerous reef and its shallow waters. All but one of the Florida Keys Reef Lighthouses is currently owned and operated by the US Coast Guard (Fowey Rocks is owned by Biscayne National Park.) and they would love to give them away! Any local or state government or non-profit group can apply. They just need to prove that they will be able to maintain the structure and promise not to make any changes that would alter the historic state of the lighthouse.
Unfortunately, due to budget cuts, maintenance to the lighthouses has been minimal at best. The structures have deteriorated considerably because of the wind, waves, and vandals who have left doors and windows open.
The Florida Keys Reef Lights Foundation was created in 2001. Their goal is to create a regional museum in the Keys area and open the lighthouses for tours and overnight stays. As you might expect, this is a huge undertaking. For more information on who they are and how you can get involved, visit www.reeflights.org
The American Shoal(s) 1990 Commemorative US 25¢ Postage Stamp
While a nice honor for the the US Postal Service to commemorate one of the Florida Keys reef lighthouses with a stamp – there are two things wrong. Can you spot them?
1.) The name is misspelled. American Shoal does not have an ’S’ at the end.
2.) The image shows a US Coastguard Cutter cruising next to the lighthouse but this is not possible. A ship like this would draw well over six feet of water and there is only five feet of water around the lighthouse!
If you like to visit lighthouses, join the United States Lighthouse Society Passport Program. It is a fun way to record your visits and help preserve lighthouse for future generations to enjoy. Collect stamps from over 450 lighthouses throughout the country. Go to http://uslhs.org/fun/passport-club to sign up.