A deadline approaches as the federal government’s General Services Administration seeks applications from nonprofits and groups that want to preserve Keys lighthouses.
The lighthouses — Alligator, Sombrero, American Shoal and Carysfort — are engineering marvels full of history and some fond memories for locals. Take Alligator Light: It was named after the U.S. Navy schooner used to safeguard the straits against pirates and slave ships. Running aground in 1822, it was blown up to prevent use by pirates.
For locals like Jim Mooney, it’s a place where many memories were made with friends during the younger years.
“We camped out there on weekends and we’d climb on top of it a thousand times. As a kid, we just had it to ourselves, Tony Hammon, Van Cadenhead and myself,” he said. “It was like our private fort.”
With the normal wear and tear from the salt environment, the lighthouses have gone through some pretty intense storms in their time. The U.S. Coast Guard, which controls Keys lighthouses, declared that the four were no longer needed. And that means they’re no longer being maintained, which is why several groups are stepping up in hopes of keeping them standing. A deadline to submit applications to the National Parks Service is October 9. Then, it’s a waiting game.
“It’s not easy to deal with the federal government,” said Bill Rivenbark, member of the Florida Keys Reef Lights Foundation, which attempted to secure Sand Key Lighthouse off Key West in mid-2017. “It took GSA almost a year-and-a-half to respond to that application.”
The GSA is offering the historic lighthouses at no cost to eligible state or local governments, nonprofits, corporations, historic preservation groups or community development organizations. The Florida Keys Reef Lights Foundation is submitting an application for all four lighthouses. Formed in 2011 by Marathon resident Tom Taylor, the foundation set out with the goal to save lighthouses in the Keys. In Biscayne Bay, the group was able to secure $60,000-plus in grants and donation for Fowey Rocks. In the midst of initial repairs at Fowey Rocks Lighthouse, the Biscayne Bay National Park formed and agreed to take over responsibility for the light.
“It got a good home and we were happy to assist in the manner we did,” Rivenbark said.
As for acquiring Sand Key, the lighthouse foundation was unsuccessful.
“Our group was told we were not experienced enough,” Rivenbark said. “We were somewhat taken aback by that. We collectively thought if we’re not experienced enough, please show me someone who is.”
Of the four lighthouses, Alligator Light is receiving more support than the other three, from what Rivenbark’s seen. Alligator is known to see thousands of people snorkeling and spending time. It’s also the crest of the village and in better condition than the other three up for acquisition.
On the Florida Keys Lights Foundation’s website, there’s a button for those who’d like to donate solely for Alligator.
“Our group agreed if we weren’t awarded Alligator, but another did, we’d donate the funds to that organization,” he said.
If Alligator falls into the same status as Sand Key, and it goes up for auction and somebody privately buys it, Rivenbark said the group will not donate to that individual or group, because the lighthouse could become private property.
Rob Dixon and a group of locals wanting to preserve Alligator Light are also submitting an application. More on their efforts will appear in next week’s Upper Keys Weekly.
Overall, Mooney hopes some group obtains Alligator Light.
“We don’t want to the lose that light, period,” he said. “