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Pigeon Key: Island on Seven Mile Bridge has scenery, history

Last updated on June 2nd, 2022 at 10:07 am

Pigeon Key, a little island in the middle of 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 — 22 feet wide with no shoulder, a two-lane highway built atop Henry Flagler’s historic train tracks. The guard rails on the side were created out of the rusting railroad tracks.

7 mile bridge pigeon key
Pigeon Key with the recently improved 2.2-mile segment of the Old Seven Mile Bridge to the island. (Florida Keys News Bureau/Andy Newman)

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 steep wooden ramp 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!

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)

Exploring Pigeon Key

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. A section of the old bridge remains. After many years of being favorite place to walk and watch the sunset, the old bridge was closed for five years and refurbished. It reopened in January, 2022 and is now a sensation again, filled with visitors who hike, bike, jog and gaze into the water.

Pigeon Key is operated by Pigeon Key Foundation & Marine Science Center. Visitors pay $15 (kids 6-12 are $12; 5 and under is $5.) Until the tram begins operating on the newly reopened bridge, visitors are whisked by speed boat from Marathon to the island — a short, delightful ride. You also can arrive on foot or by bike and tour the island.

With the bridge back in service, in spring 2022, Pigeon Key will change its tour format to bring visitors to the island on a 60-person tram.

Read more from Florida Rambler about the refurbished Old Seven Mile Bridge here.

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)
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)

Fascinating history of Pigeon Key

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.

Florida Keys: Pigeon Key and the Old Seven Mile Bridge
Historic yellow cottage on Pigeon Key; note old Seven Mile Bridge in background. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The Seven Mile Bridge and Pigeon Key’s interesting 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.

The historic building that housed workers on the Seven Mile Bridge from 1908 to 1912 is now an education center where school children from around the country come to learn about the unique environment in the Florida Keys. Here a tour group hears the island's history. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The historic building that housed workers on the Seven Mile Bridge from 1908 to 1912 is now an education center where school children from around the country come to learn about the unique environment in the Florida Keys. Here a tour group hears the island’s history. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Snorkeling on Pigeon Key

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.

Perfect.

When visiting Pigeon Key, be sure to allow time to visit the museum, which helps tells the story of the people of Pigeon Key, from the workers on the birdge to those who lived here afterwards. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
When visiting Pigeon Key, be sure to allow time to visit the museum, which tells the story of the people of Pigeon Key, from Henry Flagler to the workers on the birdge to those who lived here afterwards. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Tours of Pigeon Key

  • Tours of Pigeon Key via ferry 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 this way, 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. 
  • 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.
  • 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.

If you arrive by ferry, your boat back to where you parked leaves at approximately 12:20 p.m., 2:20 p.m., and 4 p.m.

Common questions about Pigeon Key

Can you walk to Pigeon Key? With the reopening of the Old Seven Mile Bridge, you can again walk or bicycle to Pigeon Key. You must still pay admission to the island if you arrive via bridge.

What can you do on Pigeon Key? The primary focus is touring the historic buildings and learning about the building of the Old Seven Mile Bridge. But you also can snorkel from Pigeon Key’s dock, where a variety of sea life is usually visible. Fishing is permitted on a catch-and-release basis.

Does anybody live on Pigeon Key? Kelly McKinnon, the executive director of the Pigeon Key Foundation, has lived on the island for more than a decade.

Can you stay overnight on Pigeon Key? Groups of school children stay on Pigeon Key as part of the marine science education program. According to the Pigeon Key website, the most popular program is a three-days, two-night field trip. (It costs $450 per person.)

Other nearby things to do in the Florida Keys and Marathon area:



			

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Cassandra M Smith

Friday 10th of June 2022

My great grandmother Emily Ogden was a schoolteacher there in the early 1900s, she was the daughter of David Macree Ogden, who was born in Key West in 1860! I think my family was on of the first families born in Key West.

Larry E. Brown

Tuesday 27th of April 2021

When was the metal stairway from the roadway to the island on the Gulf side removed ? I lived on Pigeon Key in the 1950's and the school bus would pick up at the ramp and drop off at the stairway...went to Sue M. Moore Elementary School in Marathon. Many wonderful memories of Pigeon Key as a youngster. Larry E. Brown

Bonnie Gross

Tuesday 27th of April 2021

I don't know the answer, but the executive director at Pigeon Key probably does. I'll send him an email and report back here if I learn anything. What a fascinating place to live as a child!

UPDATE: Larry, Pigeon Key actually has a small exhibit about your family in its museum and Kelly McKinnon, the executive director, would love to hear more from you. He'll be contacting you and perhaps he can answer the question about that ladder!

Thanks for contacting us. So happy to connect you to the island's museum.

Cathryn Spreeman

Monday 29th of March 2021

We visited a few years ago and were impressed that the science camp hosts high school or middle school students for a week at a time. Seems like an awesome opportunity. Beautiful area.

Alden Snead

Wednesday 9th of September 2020

My father was born on the key. How does one visit?

Bonnie Gross

Saturday 12th of September 2020

You can buy a ticket for a public tour at their website. I'm sure the folks at Pigeon Key would love to hear your family story. If I were you, I'd contact them. There are some contacts on this page: https://pigeonkey.net/contact/

Christy Cherry

Wednesday 22nd of March 2017

We have passed by there many times and just have never taken the time. Thanks so much for this info. It inspires us to take a picnic lunch and snorkel there!

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