October 10, 2018

File
Alligator Reef Light is named in honor of the U.S. Navy schooner Alligator that ran aground on the reef there in 1822.

File Alligator Reef Light is named in honor of the U.S. Navy schooner Alligator that ran aground on the reef there in 1822.

ISLAMORADA — Alligator Reef Light off Islamorada has survived hurricanes for 145 years, but time and the ocean have taken a toll.

Of all six Florida Keys offshore lighthouses, says local advocate Larry Herlth, “Alligator Light is in the best shape of all of them, but it’s not in good shape.”

Herlth, a Keys native known as “Lighthouse Larry” for both his historical knowledge and his scaled-down, highly-detailed sculpture reproductions of the local reef lights, fired an online warning message last week.

“In the next two to four months all of the offshore Reef Lighthouses, including Alligator, will be given away,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

The U.S. Government Services Administration “will turn over ownership to the lighthouses to a nonprofit qualifier with the correct business plan and backers,” he said. “If none qualify, it will go to an online auction to private individuals, not excluding scrap-iron companies.”

Within four days, his post drew almost 200 comments and was shared nearly 800 times. “It would be a horrible decision to let this happen!” a stunned commenter replied.

“It’s amazing. That was the response I was hoping for. We’re starting the conversation,” Herlth said. “It’s not about me. I’m here to try to save the lights. People know I’ve been trying to save these things for many years.”

The GSA’s Florida contact for its Lighthouse Program could not be reached for comment at press time.

Herlth said people with knowledge of the government’s plan told him: “It’s in the process, around four months out, sooner rather than later.”

The National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000 “gives priority to public bodies and nonprofit corporations to acquire a historic light station at no cost through a competitive application process. … If no steward is identified through this process, the [act] authorizes the General Services Administration to conduct a public sale of the light station.”

That could mean turning a lighthouse into a museum or even a bed-and-breakfast, as has happened with other lighthouse sales. But costs to make the offshore structure safe and add upgrades could be staggering.

Herlth acknowledges the problem of maintaining historic lighthouses that stand in the harsh marine environment.

“They can’t just let it fall and damage the reef,” he said.

Finding or creating a nonprofit entity with resources to accept the lights would be the ideal solution, Herlth said.

The GSA Lighthouse Program’s website says since the preservation act was passed 18 years ago, “GSA has transferred 137 lights to eligible entities. Public bodies, including nonprofits, received 58 percent (79 lights) through stewardship transfers while 42 percent (58 lights) were conveyed through public sales, generating over $7 million.”

“The historical value of these lighthouses is unbelievable. Three of them were constructed before the Civil War,” Herlth said. “I’ve been told that Alligator Light is the second-most snorkeled spot on the Keys reef, after the Christ of the Abyss statue.”

The structure, known as an iron pile skeleton lighthouse, was erected in 1873 about four miles east of Indian Key to alert ships of the shallow reef below. It is named in honor of the U.S. Navy schooner Alligator, which ran aground on the reef in 1822.

Ideally, all the Keys lighthouses should be preserved, Herlth said.

“But let’s start with this one, and even that’s a monumental task,” he said. “I can’t imagine what it would be like without Alligator Light.”

kwadlow@keysnews.com