ALLIGATOR LIGHTHOUSE – Community treasure needs saving

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Larry Herlth and Capt. Rob Dixon swimming to the Alligator Lighthouse. CONTRIBUTED

Nothing’s going to be cheap about the work that “Lighthouse Larry” Herlth says is needed to restore and maintain an Islamorada treasure in Alligator Reef Lighthouse. 

Herlth, an advocate and artist who’s built lighthouse replicas, came before council on Nov. 29 to discuss his desire to acquire the lighthouse that’s located 4 nautical miles east of Indian Key, just north of Alligator Reef near the Matecumbe Keys. Built in 1973, it’s named after the U.S. Navy schooner Alligator, which was used to protect the Florida straits against pirates and slave ships. The ship went aground in 1822 and was blown up after removing as much as possible to prevent use by pirates. 

The U.S. Coast Guard, which controls lighthouses in the Keys, declared that Alligator Lighthouse wasn’t needed any more. Congress passed the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act in 2000 to establish a lighthouse preservation program. The General Services Administration, which preserves government buildings and manages real estate, is looking to give Alligator and four other lighthouses in the Keys to nonprofits or government agencies at no cost, so long as they agree to preserve the light’s historic features and make them accessible to the public. 

One of the big issues, however, is the millions of dollars it would take to improve the conditions of lighthouses like Alligator Light. Herlth said he’s been asked by many people what the cost would be to restore the lighthouse.

“If I had $2 million for repair, you would virtually see hardly anything done on it,” Herlth said. “You’re looking at $4 million to $6 million minimum and $100,000 plus a year to maintain. It’s a daunting figure, but it’s part of our maritime history.”

Herlth noted that the lighthouse took some damage to a platform and a walkway in Hurricane Irma. He said it’s getting to a point where something has to be done. 

“Thousands of people snorkel and spend time each year at Alligator Lighthouse, so it’s definitely a vital part to this community,” Herlth said. “It’s our crest to the village.”

Groups looking to obtain the lighthouse must submit plans and meet certain criteria. If they don’t, then it would go to an online bid. 

Of all lighthouses in the Keys, Herlth said, Alligator Light is in the best shape. While he’s interested in managing the lighthouse, he said he would back any nonprofit that’s working to do the same.

“They will have me wholeheartedly,” he said.

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