Climbing to the top of a weathered and rusty 150-year-old lighthouse is not for the faint of heart.
“It was a little sketchy getting up through that spiral staircase because you had to be careful where you stepped,” said Capt. Rob Dixon of his first time inside the historic 136-foot-tall Alligator Reef Lighthouse.
“They actually made me go up first because I’m the heaviest, just to make sure it would hold,” added “Lighthouse Larry” Herlth, an Islamorada artist and preservationist.
On Aug. 15 and 16, Herlth, Dixon and Mike Walsh, president of the non-profit Friends of the Pool Inc., escorted two Chicago-based engineers four miles offshore to the iconic iron lighthouse. It is the site of what is going to be a multiyear, multimillion-dollar grassroots project aimed at restoring a beloved piece of Islamorada’s history.
“They said some areas are better than expected and some areas are a little worse. The keeper’s quarters had some substantial deterioration,” said Dixon of the engineers’ first impression of the lighthouse. The engineers work for WJE Associates. A full report of their findings will take six to eight weeks to complete.
“They are with a very reputable company with quite a lot of experience in lighthouses. We’re feeling pretty comfortable with them,” added Herlth.
Engineer Jim Hauck is a metallurgist, an expert in the properties of metals. He assessed the lighthouse for corrosion and fatigue and will also determine which materials are original. If not original, how far back do they date?
The other engineer, Mike Ford, spent a great deal of time examining the lighthouse’s foundation. “He spent an hour and a half in the water, just going around with a snorkel and filming. He must have done 10 laps around the lighthouse taking pictures, videos for things that they’re going to need to look at,” said Dixon.
Last September, the U.S. Department of Interior granted the non-profit Friends of the Pool Inc. ownership of the lighthouse with the agreement that it will be restored and made accessible to the public. Restoring a lighthouse is uncharted territory for Dixon and Herlth, but they gladly accepted the challenge. They estimate the project will take at least five years to complete and cost anywhere from $5 million to $7 million.
For years, the two have fought tirelessly to bring attention to the decrepit lighthouse. In 2012, they started Swim For Alligator Lighthouse to raise awareness. This year, roughly 500 swimmers will compete in the annual open ocean 8-mile swim on Saturday, Sept.10.
With the beginning of the engineering study comes a sense of accomplishment. “It’s a long time coming,” said Herlth.
The climb to the top of Alligator Reef Lighthouse may have been a little treacherous, but the payoff was spectacular.
“It was a little dicey getting up there, but boy, the view from the top is unparalleled,” said Dixon. Dixon and Herlth hope one day to be able to give others the experience of going inside this local landmark.
“That’s our endgame, is to have people get on there and be able to access it and learn about the history,” said Herlth.
Donations are still needed to make the restoration project a reality. If you’d like to help or learn more about Alligator Reef Lighthouse, just go to savealligatorlighthouse.org.