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Old Seven Mile Bridge reopens after 5 years; historic Pigeon Key tells its story

Last updated on January 13th, 2022 at 09:58 am

The Old Seven Mile Bridge, which closed for repairs in 2016, reopened Jan. 12, 2022 at the completion of a $77 million project to restore it.

The 2.2 mile section had been popular as a place to walk, run, bicycle, watch the sunset and gaze into the turquiose water for sharks, sea turtles and marine life.

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. (Photo: Andy Newman, Keys News Bureau)

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.

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 are still present on the bridge, but less visible as new railings were 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 Old Seven Mile Bridge was easily converted by the state of Florida to an automotive bridge — that’s the surface that was restored — and the Overseas Highway opened in 1938.

Until 1982, when the adjoining new bridge opened, the Old Seven Mile Bridge 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.)

The repairs to the bridge are to the 2.2 mile portion between Marathon and Pigeon Key, the historic island where workers on the railroad lived.

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 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. (On Google Maps, you’ll see the exact location of Fred the Tree, which somehow is decorated for Christmas each year.)

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.)

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)

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.

In spring 2022, a 60-passenger tram will take visitors across the Old Seven Mile Bridge to Pigeon Key instead of a boat.

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.

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. With the bridge is 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.

There is parking at the northern end of the Old Seven Mile Bridge on the bay side. A walkway now goes under the new Seven Mile Bridge. On the ocean side of bridge is the popular Sunset Grille and Raw Bar.

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. The Old Seven Mile Bridge is one of the most scenic bike rides in Florida.. (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

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