ISLAMORADA — The iconic Alligator Reef Light, a 148-year-old Florida Keys beacon, could get a new life now that an Islamorada-based community organization is poised to take ownership and begin a massive preservation project.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland approved a recommendation from the National Park Service that Friends of the Pool Inc. be granted ownership of the structure under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act. The nonprofit organization announced the approval last week.
“Alligator Reef Lighthouse has stood since 1873,” project organizer Rob Dixon said. “It’s an important part of Islamorada’s local history. It’s our Statue of Liberty and needs to be saved.”
Dixon said the restoration project is likely to take five to seven years and cost up to $9 million.
“We’re going to need a lot of fundraising help and a lot of technical help,” Dixon said.
Friends of the Pool hosts an annual eight-mile swimming race to the offshore lighthouse and back to fund collegiate scholarships. The effort to save the lighthouse and to start the “Swim for Alligator Lighthouse” event was conceived by Larry Herlth, an Islamorada metal artisan who created detailed replicas of Alligator Reef Light and other Keys lighthouses.
“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. The history is just phenomenal.”
Alligator Reef Light is named after the USS Alligator, a U.S. Navy schooner that ran aground on the reef in 1822 and sank.
Alligator Reef Light 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 begin, 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.
Herlth agreed that all work to the aged lighthouse set 4 miles offshore of mile marker 77 is contingent on the marine survey.
“Our dream is to make it accessible to the public, but at what level is uncertain at this point, Herlth said. “We could provide boat tours out to it to circumnavigate it or provide an opportunity to be the caretaker for the week. It would make the ideal honeymoon suite. The view from it is astounding with the reef line being so visible and the tranquility. Our goal is to restore it to the condition it was originally in after it was built.”
The structure originally consisted of a bunker, a lighthouse keeper’s room, a mess hall, a small generator room and a crude bathroom, according to Herlth. Remnants of those facilities were completely gutted about 25 years ago.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.