Alligator Reef Lighthouse, a 150-year-old lighthouse that has been dark for a decade, is shining again at night in the Florida Keys.
Boaters watch a sunset behind Alligator Reef Lighthouse off Islamorada. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)
The organizers of an Islamorada community group that took title to the lighthouse in late 2021 recently installed solar-powered lights in the lantern room — so the nighttime beacon across the water will remind the public of a nearly six-million-dollar project that’s underway to restore and preserve the aging structure.
“Alligator Lighthouse was lit in 1873 and it stayed lit until about 2013, and then it went dark for 10 years,” said Rob Dixon, executive director of Save Alligator Lighthouse, who calls the landmark Islamorada’s Statue of Liberty.
“We lit Alligator Lighthouse up so the whole community could be focused, even at nighttime,” Rob said.
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 the name, there aren’t any alligators to be found around the structure, since they live primarily in freshwater habitats.
Alligator Light and five other aging lighthouses off the Keys were important maritime navigational aids that helped warn ships away from the island chain’s barrier coral reef. But modern-day satellite navigation made the open-water lighthouses obsolete, and they now fall under the auspices of the General Services Association for disposal.
In late 2021, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior approved a recommendation from the National Park Service granting ownership of Alligator Reef Light to Rob Dixon’s Islamorada group under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act.
Larry Herlth’s lighthouse replicas, such as Alligator and Sombrero lights, inspire others to learn more about the Keys’ historic beacons. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)
The original effort to save the landmark was conceived by Larry Herlth, an Islamorada metal artisan who crafted detailed replicas of Alligator Reef Light and other Keys beacons.
“I do want to bring attention to the actual beauty of these lighthouses in their design and incredible architecture and strength,” he explained.
Larry also started the annual Swim for Alligator Lighthouse, an eight-mile open-water swimming race to the venerable structure and back, that raises funds and awareness about the need for preservation.
“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 Larry. “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,” added the artisan, whose passion for saving the beacon earned him the moniker of Lighthouse Larry. “The history is just phenomenal.”
Competitors in a past year’s open-water Swim for Alligator Lighthouse round the base of the historic Upper Keys beacon. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)
A detailed engineering study of Alligator Lighthouse was completed to determine what will be required to stabilize it after many years of being subjected to highly corrosive conditions that include unrelenting salt spray.
“To save Alligator Lighthouse, the engineering study says it’s going to be a 6-year, five- to six-million-dollar project — so we need to raise funds,” advised Rob.
Fortunately fundraising is well underway. About $500,000 has already been raised, including $215,000 from the Florida Keys’ tourism council.
And now, with the iconic structure shining its light across the water once again, there’s even more motivation to return it to its former glory.
“We’ve got a great community behind us,” Rob said. “We’ve got a lot of support — there’s nobody in this community that doesn’t want to help our project.”