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Old Seven Mile Bridge reopens and visitors flock to admire it

Just as it was when it was first built, the Old Seven Mile Bridge is a sensation.

After being closed for more than five years for restoration, the Old Seven Mile Bridge reopened Jan. 12, 2022, and immediately drew hordes of people to hike, bicycle, skate, push a stroller, walk a dog or jog its 2 mile length.

Its 35 parking spaces are nearly always full, even on weekdays, with cars often waiting for someone to leave.

Seven Mile Bridge old seven mile bridge start Old Seven Mile Bridge reopens and visitors flock to admire it
The Old Seven Mile Bridge is limited to bicyclists, pedestrians and the tram to Pigeon Key. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

There is a steady stream of people coming and going and taking pictures; the bridge is now far busier than in years before the closure.  

Many visitors are also touring Pigeon Key, the 5-acre island at the end of the bridge, a historic landmark that tells the fascinating story of the bridge’s construction. (See more below.)

The bridge is located at Mile Marker 47 in Marathon and only 2.2 miles of it are accessible. The new Seven Mile Bridge is immediately adjacent on the ocean side.

The New Seven Mile Bridge, at left, and the historic Old Seven Mile Bridge, at right, at sunset. (Photo: Andy Newman, Keys News Bureau)
The New Seven Mile Bridge, at left, and the historic Old Seven Mile Bridge, at right, at sunset just before its opening. (Photo: Andy Newman, Keys News Bureau)

What makes the Old Seven Mile Bridge so special?  

Old Seven, as it is nicknamed, stands out in the Keys for two reasons — its history (it was once called the Eighth Wonder of the World) and the natural beauty you experience from it.

When we walked and biked the bridge in January, on one lucky bike ride, we paused to gaze into the water and saw three huge spotted rays at one point and a sea turtle and a large nurse shark at another. The many visitors were a help. We noticed people gathering to look down and took advantage of their sharp eyes.

A sea turtle spotted from the Old Seven Mile Bridge. (Photo: David Blasco)
A sea turtle spotted from the Old Seven Mile Bridge. (Photo: David Blasco)

Even without these wildlife sightings, the view from the bridge is spectacular – so many shades of blue, those dramatic Florida clouds, boats zipping underneath, fishermen moored nearby, the elegant new bridge in the distance, the pelicans, gulls, magnificent frigate birds, osprey and other birds.

The story of the Old Seven Mile Bridge and Flagler’s Overseas Railroad

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.

A very rich old man by the time he fell in love with Florida, Flagler kept extending his railroad farther and farther down the Atlantic Coast. When he decided to extend the railroad over the water to Key West, Flagler’s men told him while it could be done, they didn’t recommend it — its tremendous cost could never be recovered.

They were right.

Old Seven Mile Bridge: When you visit, be sure to notice the rusting rails from Flagler's railroad that were repurposed as the original guardrails. They are on the outside of the bridge. New, safer guardrails are on the inside. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Old Seven Mile Bridge: When you visit, be sure to notice the rusting rails from Flagler’s railroad that were repurposed as the original guardrails. They are on the outside of the bridge. New, safer guardrails are on the inside. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Flagler’s Overseas Railroad, the first land route from Miami to Key West when it opened in 1912, was a financial failure 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 at Islamorada. 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. (Flagler had died a year after the railroad opened.)

The Old Seven Mile Bridge was easily converted by the state of Florida to an automotive bridge — that’s the surface that was just restored — and the Overseas Highway opened in 1938.

For 44 years, until the adjoining new bridge opened in 1982, the Old Seven Mile Bridge was the only road cars could take to Key West. It was 22 feet wide, a single lane in each direction with no shoulder at all.

Visiting the Keys between 1978 and 1982, I vividly remember it as a spectacularly beautiful but white-knuckle ride. When you experience how narrow it is first-hand, you will know what I mean.

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)

Today, when you visit the old bridge, be sure to notice the guardrails. Shiny new ones safely line the bridge, but on the outer side are the rusting rails of the original Flagler railroad. When the bridge was converted for cars, the old rails were simply repurposed as guardrails for the new roadway – and they’re still there.

Visiting the Old Seven Mile Bridge

Old Seven is a great stop on a trip through the Florida Keys, but parking is likely to be an issue. While right now the lot remains full or nearly full at most times, visitors don’t necessarily stay long, so the spaces turn over fairly quickly.

Bicyclists can park north of the bridge in various places in Marathon and take the excellent bike trail on the bay side of the road right to the bridge.

There is a little street parking on the other side of US 1, just beyond the Sunset Grille and Raw Bar. What makes this parking viable is that there is now a scenic walkway under the highway between that restaurant and the park at the base of the Old Seven Mile Bridge. (Or have a meal at the Sunset Grille and then take a walk on the bridge afterwards.)

The Old Seven Mile Bridge has clear lane markings for pedestrians and bicyclists, maintaining safe one-way traffic. (Photo: David Blasco)
The Old Seven Mile Bridge has clear lane markings for pedestrians and bicyclists, maintaining safe one-way separate traffic. (Photo: David Blasco)

Common questions about the Old Seven Mile Bridge

Are there restrooms at the Old Seven Mile Bridge? Nope, and they are very much needed. Some plans are underway to add them.

Can you fish on the Old Seven Mile Bridge? No, and with the walkers and bicyclists, it’s clear there wouldn’t be room for fishing. You can fish from the park at the base of the bridge on the bay side.

Can I use an electric bike on the Old Seven Mile Bridge? There is a 15 mph speed limit. I did see electric bikes using the bridge.

Can I walk my dog on the Old Seven Mile Bridge. There is no signage forbidding it and I saw plenty of dogs.

Can I picnic near the bridge? Yes! There are four picnic tables that remain from the earlier park at the base of the bridge and four new picnic tables under a roof. These tables have a beautiful view overlooking the bay. Without restrooms nearby, however, they aren’t perfect spots for a meal.

Can I bike or walk to Pigeon Key? Absolutely. I have more about visiting Pigeon Key below.

When was the Old Seven Mile Bridge built? Old Seven was built between 1908 and 1912 and as many as 400 workmen lived on Pigeon Key during its construction.

Did they blow up that section of the Old Seven Mile Bridge for a movie? No, it only looked that way. Old Seven has appeared in several films, most famously the 1994 True Lies with Arnold Schwarzenegger, where the old bridge is shown being destroyed by missile strikes. The explosion was done on an 80-foot model.

Historic building on Pigeon Key in the middle of the Old Seven Mile Bridge. Note the wooden ramp that takes visitors from the bridge to the island. It is an exact wooden replica of the original. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Historic building on Pigeon Key in the middle of the Old Seven Mile Bridge. Note the wooden ramp that takes visitors from the bridge to the island. It is an exact wooden replica of the original. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Visiting Pigeon Key: Where the Old Seven Mile Bridge started

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.

You arrive at Pigeon Key on a cute blue and yellow train/tram and get a guided tour that includes a few of its 11 historic buildings. Pigeon Key housed the workers who built the Seven Mile Bridge from 1908 to 1912.

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

Seven Mile Bridge pigeon key dock with old bridge rail Old Seven Mile Bridge reopens and visitors flock to admire it
The dock at Pigeon Key, viewed looking over the rusting rails that are the old guardrails on the Old Seven Mile Bridge. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

There’s more than history on Pigeon Key. Visitors can bring their lunch and picnic. 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 lasts about an hour. 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. Entrance price is adults $25; kids 4-12 are $20; 3 and under free.
  • If you walk or bike to Pigeon Key: You can book your tour online or by calling 305-743-5999. Tours start at the yellow picnic tables on the south side of the Bridge Tender’s building. (Look for the umbrellas.) Arrive 10 minutes prior to tour time, which is 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. Admission is the same.
  • Tickets can be purchased on the same day in-person or you can reserve your spot over the phone if you have a time and date preference.
  • Here’s a Florida Rambler guide to visiting Pigeon Key.
The gap in the Old Seven Mile Bridge, as seen from Pigeon Key. (Photo: David Blasco)
The gap in the Old Seven Mile Bridge, as seen from Pigeon Key. (Photo: David Blasco)

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.

With the 2.2 mile section of the bridge refurbished, it can hold 17-ton vehicles, such as fire trucks. The bridge is limited to trams going to Pigeon Key, pedestrians, bicyclists and emergency vehicles.

More about the Old Seven Mile Bridge

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 may change without notice. Confirm details when planning your trip.

This page may include affiliate links from which we may earn a modest commission if a purchase is made. More often, we include free courtesy links to small businesses, such as kayak outfitters, from whom we receive no compensation.

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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Lisa

Tuesday 1st of February 2022

What great news, very informative as always. So glad that fishing isn't allowed, though, of course, w/o enforcement, people will fish. When we hauled our bikes to the Keys in 2017 to ride all the historic bridges, it was disgusting. Incredible trash from people fishing, leaving bait boxes, paper wrappers, empty drink bottles everywhere and erecting day tents and leaving their fishing lines cross the lanes so it was impossible to bike, almost to walk. We picked up as much trash along the way as we could but could've used bags and bags to get it all. And, of course, much of it was seen blowing over the side into the water.

Bonnie Gross

Tuesday 1st of February 2022

I heard the same thing from someone who works at Pigeon Key!

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

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