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Old Seven Mile Bridge closed until 2022; Pigeon Key still open

Last updated on May 22nd, 2021 at 05:27 pm

$77 million plan is restoring historic Seven Mile Bridge

The Old Seven Mile Bridge closed for repairs in 2016 and is not scheduled to reopen until May 2022.

The $77 million project to restore the bridge includes repairs to concrete and steel, a new pedestrian railing, signs and pavement markings.

Pigeon Key, the historic island in the middle of the old bridge, is still open for tours and it’s reached by a scenic boat ride. (Details below.)

Before it was closed for restoration, rusting railroad tracks from Flagler’s original railroad served as guard rails on the Old Seven Mile bridge. Those historic rails will still be present on the bridge, but less visible as new railings will be placed on the interior to meet modern safety requirements, according to Kelly McKinnon, executive director of the Pigeon Key Foundation. Pigeon Key and its dock is in the distance. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The history of the Old Seven Mile Bridge is closely tied with Florida’s history — Henry Flagler’s railroad down the east coast of Florida is what opened the state to the world. For better or worse, Florida is what it is because of Henry Flagler.

His Overseas Railroad, the first land route ever from Miami to Key West, never was a financial success and then it became a downright disaster. A devastating 1935 hurricane brought 200 mph winds and a 17-foot storm surge, washing away miles of railroad. Flagler’s bankrupt Florida East Coast railway sold the whole right-of-way to the state for one-seventh what it cost Flagler to build the railroad.

This gap in the Old Seven Mile Bridge, just south of Pigeon Key, prevents folks from reaching the other 5.8 mile section. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
This gap in the Old Seven Mile Bridge, just south of Pigeon Key, prevents folks from reaching the other 5.8 mile section. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The Old Seven Mile Bridge was easily converted by the state of Florida to an automotive bridge — that’s the surface being restored today. Until 1982, when the adjoining new bridge opened, it was the only road cars could take to Key West. (I vividly remember it as a white-knuckle ride, and when you experience how narrow it is first-hand, you will know what I mean.)

Folks in the Keys treasure the Old Seven Mile Bridge and, before it closed for repairs, used it daily to walk, fish and watch the famous Florida Keys sunset. When it re-opens, I am sure it will be more popular than ever; I thought riding my bike on that section of the old bridge was about as great a ride as you can find. 

The repairs to the bridge are to the 2.2 mile portion between Marathon and Pigeon Key. The other 5.8 mile section of the Old Seven Mile Bridge south of Pigeon Key cannot be accessed– a section was removed south of the island to prevent that. Today the remaining expanse rusts in the sun and solitude, with an occasional tree finding enough dirt in a crack to sprout from it.

Postcard of Old Seven Mile Bridge at night
Postcard of Old Seven Mile Bridge as seen from Pigeon Key, postmarked 1950. (Courtesy Florida Memory Project)

When you visit the Old Seven Mile Bridge, it may look familiar. It has appeared in several films, most famously the 1994 True Lies with Arnold Schwarzenegger, when the old bridge is shown being destroyed by missile strikes. (The explosion was done on an 80-foot model.)

Visiting Pigeon Key: Where the Old Seven Mile Bridge started

Pigeon-Key-yellow-house.jpg
Historic buildings on Pigeon Key in the middle of the Old Seven Mile Bridge. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Few history lessons are as beautiful as this one: A visit to Pigeon Key, a picturesque little island surrounded by dazzling blue water in the middle of the Old Seven Mile Bridge.

There are lots of places I love in the Florida Keys, but Pigeon Key is at the top of the list.

Here’s what I love: spectacular views, its isolation from the outside world, an amazing human story, charming historic buildings, snorkeling off the dock and the fact that the island gets 95% of its energy from solar power.

The dock on Pigeon Key is a good place to snorkel.
The dock on Pigeon Key is a good place to snorkel. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Pigeon Key visitors pay $15 (kids 5-13 are $12; kids 5 and under are $5) and are whisked by speed boat from Marathon to the island — a delightful two-mile ride under both the new Seven Mile Bridge and the old one.

A tour guide walks you 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.

Florida Keys: Pigeon Key and the Old Seven Mile Bridge
The Old Seven Mile Bridge: This is the original wooden ramp to Pigeon Key, which has been replaced with an exact replica. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The Seven Mile Bridge and Pigeon Key’s fascinating history are told through displays and artifacts in its museum.

There’s more than history on Pigeon Key. Visitors can bring their lunch and relax under the shade created by the solar array built on the island’s east side. Picnic tables are available and you are encouraged to stay after the tour and snorkel in the clear waters off Pigeon Key’s dock.

  • Tours of Pigeon Key are at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. The tours last about two hours and include the 2-mile boat ride ferrying you to and from the island. To visit Pigeon Key, go to the visitor center located at 2010 Overseas Highway in Marathon, which is Mile Marker 47.5 bayside between Faro Blanco Resort and the Marriott Hotel.  Here’s a Florida Rambler guide to visiting Pigeon Key.

The $77 million project to save the Old Seven Mile Bridge

Saving Old Seven had been a major cause in the Keys and in 2014, three levels of government came together to fund a major restoration project. Under the plan, the county, the City of Marathon and the Florida Department of Transportation all contribute. FDOT pays $57 million over a 30-year period; Monroe County pays  $14 million and the City of Marathon pays $5 million. When the bridge is refurbished, it will be able to hold 17-ton vehicles, such as fire trucks.

The first phase of the project began in 2017.  That $2 million project created a handicapped-accessible walkway from the old bridge under the new bridge to the ocean side. It will include adding picnic pavilions and scenic overlooks. In 2020, a $1.9 million portion of the project was completed — building an exact replica of the wooden “off ramp” that leads to Pigeon Key. Details are here. Along the entire 2.2 mile stretch, crews are replacing some of the rusted steel beams and strengthening the concrete piers that support the bridge.

When the bridge re-opens, it will be limited to trams going to Pigeon Key plus pedestrians and bicyclists.

More about the Old Seven Mile Bridge:

Florida Keys: Old Seven Mile Bridge is a great bike trail
Biking the Old Seven Mile Bridge before its closure. Starting in May 2022, the bike ride on the Old Seven Mile Bridge — one of the most scenic rides in Florida — will again be possible. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Resources for planning a Florida Keys vacation

Other nearby things to do in the Upper and Middle Keys

Note:

Many readers have written to ask: Can you bicycle across the new Seven Mile Bridge?

You could only do this on the new bridge — I wouldn’t do it but, then, I’m a recreational bicyclist who is looking for stress-free, safe trails. It is not recommended for that kind of  ride!

Many bicyclists do it. There’s about a five-foot lane for bikes and the bridge is mostly flat, with about one-mile at the center elevated, according to a bicyclist who has written about it. Here’s a section of her account on pedaling the length of the Keys.

Here’s more about the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail. If you are bicycling in the Keys and want to skip crossing the Seven Mile Bridge, Marathon taxis now have bike racks and can shuttle you and your bike across the bridge.

A note from the editor:

The information in this article was accurate when published but can change without notice. Please confirm details when planning your trip by following the links in this article.

This article is the property of FloridaRambler.com and is protected by U.S. Copyright Law. Re-publication without written permission is against the law.


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Jerry Grimes

Monday 11th of May 2020

There was an explosion at the turnstile (for boat passage) on the original overseas highway. Is there any info available about it. I think this happened in 1981 or 82.

Rosalee Hiett

Tuesday 18th of May 2021

@Bob Rountree, That was my Uncle Peter Charles Fancher. I recently took the Pigeon Key Tour and was saddened to hear him barely mentioned. There is not even a photo of him in one of the houses on the little island.

Bob Rountree

Monday 11th of May 2020

In 1981, there was an explosion on a draw span that killed the tender. Here's more: https://conchscooter.blogspot.com/2011/03/seven-mile-bridge-memorial.html

Adventure Outdoor Living Blog

Thursday 16th of August 2018

[…] Only have half a day to spare or don’t feel like walking quite so many miles in one day? I recommend the old Seven Mile Bridge and Pigeon Key. It’s a little over two miles to get to Pigeon Key from the start of the old bridge in Marathon, so the round-trip would roughly be five miles. It’s a good walk but nowhere near as long and strenuous as my other suggestions. Plus, there is the option of taking a guided tour at Pigeon Key and brush up on some important local history, as well as admiring historic houses and beautiful views. Information on tours, times and prices can be found in this Florida Rambler article. […]

Travel Nursing Destination Spotlight: South Florida - RNnetwork - Travel Nursing Blog

Tuesday 7th of August 2018

[…] to Elizabeth Taylor and Ernest Hemingway. The Florida Keys are also connected in part by the famous Seven-Mile Bridge, a unique destination […]

Florida Keys Road Trip - Savvy Navigator

Thursday 21st of September 2017

[…] and it’s what you think of having seen the movies, which often feature scenes of the famous Seven Mile Bridge. It’s just south of Marathon, where hopefully you’ll have transited quickly enough to not be […]

ZZfoto | Miami Based Portrait Photographers ZZ's 2015 Florida Keys Photo Shoot - ZZfoto | Miami Based Portrait Photographers

Friday 7th of April 2017

[…] Largo, enjoyed gorgeous view and  stone crabs at Islamorada Fish Company, took photos on the Seven Mile Bridge (as if we didn’t elsewhere :-P),  and walked around in Key […]

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