Unstaffed Offshore Lights of the Florida Keys

Between 1921 and 1935 at least seven offshore, unstaffed lighthouses were built off the Florida Keys. They are:

  1. Pacific Reef (about 3 miles southeast of Elliott Key)
  2. Molasses Reef (about 8 miles southeast of Key Largo)
  3. Hen and Chickens Shoal (south of Tavernier)
  4. Tennessee Reef (south of Long Key)
  5. Cosgrove Shoal (about 20 miles WSW of Key West, south of the Marquesas Keys)
  6. Smith Shoal (about 11 miles NNW of Key West)
  7. Pulaski Shoal (about 30 miles NW of Key West, north of the Dry Tortugas)

(There may have been an eighth at Soldier Key in Biscayne Bay but the Light List indicates there is no lighthouse there now.)

These lighthouses were all about 50 ft tall. They had screwpile foundations; triangular, square or hexagonal pyramidal skeletal towers; and enclosed lanterns originally housing Fresnel lenses. (I don't know for sure whether the Cosgrove Shoal and Smith Shoal lights had enclosed lanterns but it seems reasonable to infer they did.)

Tennessee Reef Light, 1966
U. S. Coast Guard photo
Molasses Reef Light
Molasses Reef today, with daymarker and weather station
NOAA National Buoy Data Center photo

In 2001 Kebby Kelley, then at the U.S. Coast Guard Office of Civil Engineering in Washington, reported that only three of these lights remained: Molasses Reef, Tennessee Reef and Hen and Chickens. All of them are still active lights; the Molasses Reef tower also carries a NOAA automatic weather station.

Kelley confirmed that the Coast Guard has removed the enclosed lanterns from all the lighthouses except the one at Tennessee Reef, where the Light List describes a "small black house" atop the tower. In 2000 the town of Islamorada acquired the Pacific Reef Light's lantern and installed it as the centerpiece of the town's Founders Park.

It's debatable whether these towers are lighthouses or not, but they certainly deserve a lot more attention from lighthouse fans than they've received up to now. All the towers are well known to boaters because each of them is a popular diving or fishing site.

Lantern of Pacific Reef Light
photo copyright Zachary Yarnes; used by permission

Hen and Chickens Shoal Light
photo copyright Eric Martin, used by permission

Thanks to Eric Martin of Orlando for the closeup photo at left of the Hen and Chickens Shoal Light. In addition to its usefulness as an aid to navigation, the old tower is a very popular roosting site for brown boobies.

The Pacific Reef tower was replaced in 2000 by a larger and more modern skeletal tower seen in a photo posted by Kraig Anderson. Photos are also available of the modern towers of the Cosgrove Shoal Light, Smith Shoal Light, and Pulaski Shoal Light. These three lights share a common design: triangular skeletal towers supporting a square platform.

The three remaining towers are roughly 80 years old, so they will soon need replacement as well. One hopes that the Coast Guard will find a way to save, at least, the relatively intact tower of Tennessee Reef; it could be displayed onshore somewhere along the Ocean Highway.


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Posted September 21, 2001. Checked and revised July 11, 2019. Site copyright 2019 Russ Rowlett and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.