Bring snorkeling gear to explore the waters off Pigeon Key dock
Pigeon Key, a little island off the old Seven Mile Bridge, is a singular place with beauty and history equally well-preserved.
When I first visited the Florida Keys in 1978, the most memorable experience was driving across the Seven Mile Bridge.
This was the old Seven Mile Bridge — a narrow two-lane highway built atop Henry Flagler’s historic train tracks, with the guard rails on the side created out of the rusting railroad tracks.
With the impossibly blue water below and the impossibly blue sky above, my eyes were still drawn to that yellow line down the middle and the narrow pavement on either side. There was no room for error on the Seven Mile Bridge, site of many tragic accidents.
Two miles south of its start in Marathon, the Seven Mile Bridge passed over this perfect little green island with old yellow cottages and palm trees — Pigeon Key. A spur off the bridge curved down to the island, but it was privately owned and visitors were not welcome. Oh how I wanted to explore that small circle of paradise!
Today, you can explore Pigeon Key and marvel at the old Seven Mile Bridge, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And while there are a lot of places I love in the Keys, Pigeon Key may be first on my list.
A sleeker, safer Seven Mile Bridge paralleling the old one opened in 1982. The old bridge remains, falling further and further into disrepair. Until a few years ago, the 2.2 mile stretch to Pigeon Key was used for trams for visitors. But it became too deteriorated for vehicles and today it is open only to hikers and bikers. (Here’s info on biking and walking on the Old Seven Mile Bridge, which will close repairs July 5, 2016 to April 2017.)
Pigeon Key is now operated by Pigeon Key Foundation & Marine Science Center. Visitors pay $12 (kids 5-13 are $9) and now are whisked by speed boat from Marathon to the island — a short, delightful ride under both the new Seven Mile Bridge and the old bridge.
A tour guide walks you around the 5-acre island of Pigeon Key and through many of its 11 historic buildings. Pigeon Key housed the workers who built the Seven Mile Bridge from 1908 to 1912 for railroad magnate Henry Flagler, a partner of John D. Rockefeller.
The Seven Mile Bridge and Pigeon Key’s fascinating history are well told through displays and artifacts on Pigeon Key. The story includes the deadly 1935 Labor Day hurricane that killed some 400, including 250 World War I vets washed to sea from work camps. The hurricane destroyed the railroad line and Flagler eventually sold the bridge to the U.S. government. The old railroad bridge’s foundation was used to build a bridge for vehicles — the one I drove over in 1978.
Today a visit to the Seven Mile Bridge and the island of Pigeon Key offers several pleasures. It is a joy just to spend time on this historic island and wander among its picturesque 100-year-old cottages and palm trees, soaking up its history. Bring your lunch and relax: Picnic tables are available and you are encouraged to stay after the tour for the whole day, if you like.
On a sultry summer day, we brought our snorkeling gear and explored the waters around the Pigeon Key dock — another recreation that is encouraged. Pigeon Key is surrounded by waters rich in sea life, and the dock attracts schools of colorful fish. What we liked best, though, was finding pieces of history in the water — stones that were obviously building materials from the era of the railroad tracks’ construction, pieces of metal encrusted with barnacles.
We ate our lunch under the chickee hut at the end of the dock, a breeze blowing and the blueness of the water and sky dazzling our senses.
Tours of Pigeon Key
Tours of Pigeon Key are at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. The $12 tours last about two hours and includes a 2-mile boat ride ferrying you to the island. Get tickets at the Pigeon Key Foundation’s gift shop in Marathon, in an old railroad car at 1 Knight’s Key Blvd. or by calling (305) 743-5999. Additional information is available at www.pigeonkey.net.
Other nearby things to do in the Florida Keys and Marathon area:
- More about the Old Seven Mile Bridge
- No Name Pub worth finding on Big Pine Key
- Indian Key: Kayak into history
- Long Key: Beach camping in the Keys
- Seeing Keys deer on Big Pine Key
- Out-of-the-way Keys cabins on Big Pine Key
- Sea Turtle Hospital in Marathon: Get close to an endangered species
- Fort Zachary Taylor State Park: Hidden gem in Key West
- Print out this mile marker guide to enhance your next road trip to the Florida Keys and your stop at Pigeon Key.