Ask Larry “Lighthouse” Herlth what it would mean to obtain the iconic, historic marvel in Alligator Lighthouse, and he’ll tell you it would be a 10-year dream come true.
The anchors to the annual Swim to Alligator Lighthouse, Larry Herlth and Capt. Rob Dixon are spearheading the local effort to secure the historic maritime treasure, which the U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security determined to be excess to their needs. Per the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, the historic property located 4 miles offshore of Islamorada is being made available at no cost.
“It’s such an important part of Keys life in Islamorada,” said Herlth, who’s coming off yet another highly successful Alligator Swim, which saw hundreds of participants. “To restore it would just be phenomenal.”
The deadline is drawing near for applications by interested agencies, nonprofit corporations and other organizations to the National Park Service. Dixon, who spent 20 hours this past weekend finalizing the application, said they’ve been working on the 120-page document since the beginning of the year.
“I think our application isn’t just going to be excellent and right in every way, but I also think it’s going to be a template for anybody that (NPS) ever wants to give a lighthouse to,” Dixon said. “We’re trying to set the standard and raise the bar to do everything to the best we can do, and you can see how that turned out with our swim.”
Alligator Light Reef Station, built in 1873, is a 148-foot-plus cast iron octagonal screw-pile tower with keeper’s quarters and landing dock. With nearly 450 swimmers partaking in the annual Swim to Alligator this year, the event drew some 1,500 visitors from 37 states and seven countries. The money raised from the swim goes to student scholarships and awareness for the lighthouse.
The swim to Alligator all began with Lighthouse Larry, who decided one day to swim to the lighthouse and back — alone. And while his friends thought he was crazy, he knew it was something every open swimmer needed to experience.
Herlth, who took his talents and skills to create many replicas of Alligator Light, said the attempt to acquire and restore the lighthouse is a serious one — so much that he’ll spend the rest of his life to ensure Alligator stands and gleams. Herlth knows every aspect of marine construction, and he knows what it’s going to take.
“I could build that lighthouse in my sleep. It’s going to happen,” he said. “That’s the only way I can think about it.”
“I’ve spoken with casting companies that actually made the casts in 1873, and there’s still a company today in Georgia, and they cannot wait for us to get it,” Herlth continued. “We’re trying to figure on everything.”
Carolyn Wightman chairs the village of Islamorada’s Parks and Recreation Citizens’ Advisory Committee. She expressed support for the application led by Herlth and Dixon.
“I think when we think about the application, if I had to make a choice between people that had money and people that had local community power, I’d pick the people with local power in a heartbeat,” she said. “When you have local support of this type represented here, you’re talking about very deep and broad community support.”
The U.S. General Service Administration concluded its review of interest letters submitted by potential stewards for Alligator as well as Carysfort, Sombrero and American Shoal. In coordination with NPS and the U.S. Coast Guard, site visits were conducted in mid-July.
“Those entities have up to 90 days following the tour to submit applications for stewardship to NPS,” said Adam Rondeau, representative with the U.S. GSA regional public affairs.
Restoring and maintaining Alligator will require millions, but Herlth said the funding the lighthouse needs isn’t a big worry, because there’s plenty of community support behind the cause.
“I’m not sure of anyone who doesn’t support us in the community,” he said. “It’s been overwhelming. The community definitely knows we are community. Just to be able to save it is really a dream.”