The iconic Alligator Reef Lighthouse, an almost 150-year-beacon that kept maritime traffic clear of perilous coral reefs off the Florida Keys, is to be acquired by an Islamorada community-based organization committed to its preservation.
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland has approved a recommendation from the National Park Service that the Friends of the Pool, Inc., be granted ownership of the lighthouse under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act. The nonprofit organization, host of an annual eight-mile roundtrip swimming race to the lighthouse that funds collegiate scholarships, announced late Tuesday that its application had been sanctioned by Haaland.
“Alligator Reef Lighthouse has stood since 1873,” said project organizer Rob Dixon while preparing for Saturday’s “Swim for Alligator Lighthouse” event. “It’s an important part of Islamorada’s local history.
“It’s our Statue of Liberty (and it) needs to be saved,” he said.
Dixon said the restoration project is likely to take five to seven years and cost up to $9 million, adding that fundraising efforts have already begun.
The effort to save the lighthouse and to start the marathon swim event was conceived by Larry Herlth, an Islamorada metal artisan who created detailed replicas of Alligator Reef Lighthouse and other Keys beacons.
“Growing up here, enjoying the sights, the water all my life, I can’t imagine Islamorada without it and a lot of locals feel the same way,” said Herlth, who is passionate about the lighthouse. “It’s definitely an emotional piece of our history.
“The six lighthouses off the Florida Keys are the biggest collection of iron piling lighthouses anywhere in the world,” said Herlth, whose passion for saving the landmark earned him the moniker Lighthouse Larry. “The history is just phenomenal.”
Alligator Reef Lighthouse is named after the USS Alligator, a U.S. Navy schooner that ran aground on the reef in 1822 and sank. Despite misconceptions, there are no alligators around the lighthouse since the reptiles primarily live in freshwater habitats.
Alligator Reef Lighthouse and five other aging lighthouses off the Keys were important maritime navigational aids that helped warn ships away from the Keys’ coral reef chain. But modern-day satellite navigation made open-water lighthouses off the Keys obsolete and the structures now fall under the auspices of the General Services Association for disposal.
Dixon said the first step after his group receives the structure’s transfer from the GSA is a detailed engineering study to determine what is required to stabilize the structure after many years of being subjected to highly corrosive conditions. After that, other restoration projects are likely to commence including refurbishing the lighthouse keeper’s quarter and painting the entire structure.
“Our goal is to restore Alligator Lighthouse to as close as we can to its original condition,” Dixon said.