What are the Totten Beacons?

In 1513, Spanish explorer Ponce de León sailed into the strong currents of the Florida Straits. Little did he know that within a few years, these uncharted waters, which fed into the Gulf Stream, would become a major international shipping route to and from Europe and the New World.

As Europeans explored and colonized the Americas, they took advantage of the Florida Straits’ winds and currents. The winds changed direction often, however, easily pounding countless vessels against miles of treacherous submerged coral reefs off the southern Florida coast.

By 1852, Lieutenant James B. Totten, the U.S. Army’s assistant to the Coast Survey, had installed 15 wooden signal poles in the reefs to create more accurate charts of the Florida Keys. Local mariners quickly recognized that the poles themselves helped them safely navigate the reefs, and by 1855, Totten and his team installed a second generation of 16 poles using a more permanent material—iron. The “beacons” each displayed a letter, starting with “A” and ending with “P.” Today, remnants of Totten Beacons are protected as historical resources by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS).

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