Thursday, July 3, 2014

Offshore Light Stations

There are those who fixate on lighthouses, and spend a considerable amount of time touring around and visiting them. I only share their obsession as but a part of my obsession with coastal matters in general, but I do take a side in their neverending debate on whether offshore light stations count as lighthouses. I say yes, most assuredly, they do.

There are at least eleven relics of very old unmanned light stations in the Florida Keys area. They were built between 1921 and 1935, and I'm surprised to find just how little information about them remains for us to inspect. Only six of them still have a functioning light, and no one seems really sure of the details what happened to the others. The Pacific Reef Light's lantern was salvaged and placed on display at Founders Park on the island of Islamorada, but what became of the others is a mystery.

Those eleven structures are/were:

Pacific Reef (3 miles SE of Elliott Key)
Molasses Reef (8 miles SE of Key Largo)
Hen and Chickens Shoal (south of Tavernier)
Tennessee Reef (south of Long Key)
Cosgrove Shoal (20 miles WSW of Key West, south of the Marquesas Keys)
Smith Shoal (11 miles NNW of Key West)
Pulaski Shoal (30 miles NW of Key West, north of the Dry Tortugas)
Alligator Reef (4.6 miles east of Indian Key)
Carysfort Reef (near Key Largo)
American Shoal (east of the Saddlebunch Keys)
Sombrero Key (near Marathon Key)

Historical documents make mention of a 12th - one at Soldier Key in Biscayne Bay - but it's not there, and nobody's really sure why, or even if it truly existed at all. I find that weird. Haven't any divers noticed its remains on the seafloor? Or was it completely taken down and hauled off for scrap?

Few photos of these light stations in their heyday exist. They were/are mostly triangular/square/hexagonal skeletal towers with platforms on top, housing powerful Fresnel lenses (bonus points if you're in the theatre world and know the correct pronunciation of Fresnel.)

The Molasses Reef station also doubles as a NOAA weather station today, and some of the original stations like Pacific Reef Tower have been replaced by a more modern structure. Though it's certainly possible to pull up to these stations and climb up them, I wouldn't advise it. In the case of the Molasses Reef station, it's probably illegal, but more importantly, the metal ladders of these towers are completely caked in bird droppings.

Though I've not heard of a case where a boat has had to attach themselves to one of the stations for protection during a storm, I would guess it's a statistical certainty.

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