Reef Light Foundation talks mission - A large ship in a body of water - Alligator Reef Light House

Bill Rivenbark says the Florida Keys Reef Light Foundation board isn’t supposed to have favorite lighthouses. But Rivenbark told Islamorada Council members during an April 25 meeting he’s the greatest breaker of that rule. 

“My favorite light is right out there, and it’s Alligator,” he said. “It has been all my life.”

Alligator Reef Light and three other Keys lighthouses are no longer considered critical to the U.S. Coast Guard, which stepped away due to budgetary reasons. The U.S. General Services Administration, which now owns the lighthouses, is looking to transfer them to a steward to take care of. 

Built in 1973, the light is 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.

Interested individuals and parties had an April 2 deadline to submit a letter of interest to the GSA for the Keys lighthouses. The Florida Keys Reef Light Foundation, a nonprofit, put in for all four in Alligator Light, Carysfort, Sombrero and American Shoal. 

Obtaining the lighthouses will be no easy task, and Rivenbark acknowledged that it’s an arduous process, having tried to secure Sand Key Lighthouse in mid-2017. The application was 100 pages in length.

“It took GSA almost one and a half years to respond to the application,” he said. “In February of this year, we were advised that our application was rejected. Typical of a major federal bureaucracy, there was no explanation, just ‘yea’ or ‘nay.’ Through back channel sources, we were able to determine that the decision makers didn’t think our group was either qualified or experienced enough. To say that we disagree with this response is an understatement. In reality, we absolutely reject the notion we’re not qualified for such.”

Formed in 2011 by Marathon resident Tom Taylor, Florida Keys Reef Light Foundation set out with the goal to save lighthouses in the Keys. Rivenbark said Taylor left the group too early, passing away in his 50s. The group’s president today is Eric Martin. 

If successful in securing Alligator Light, Rivenbark said step one would be to stabilize and install new anodes on the lights. Second, the foundation would determine if there are any structural issues with the light and complete a structural report. 

Repairs to the dock and walkway would be a priority to get safely to the light platform. Overall, Rivenbark said those who view Alligator Light up close notice several characteristics.

“Most people don’t realize exactly how tall it is, and in the case of Alligator, it’s 150 feet tall from the average waterline,” he said. “Also, you’re struck by the intricacy of the construction. You’ve got to get up within 100 yards of it to see exactly how the tie rods are connected. This is proof these lights were truly engineering marvels of their day.”

Rivenbark said if the village could give its moral support to the foundation to secure the light, “that would be tremendous.” Vice Mayor Mike Forster said he’ll ask for a small appropriation during the budget process to help out in the endeavor. 

“If you look at our seal, it’s right in the middle of it,” he said. “I think it’s real important, but it has to be specific to Alligator Light. Hopefully Marathon will do the same with their lighthouse, which is on their seal, and we can get a groundswell of support. No matter how this gets done, we all benefit from it.”

Councilman Jim Mooney said he was fortunate enough to camp out at the light in the 1960s after it was decommissioned following Hurricane Donna, which struck in 1960. 

“It’s an institution and we need to save that lighthouse,” Mooney said. “You’ve got my full support.”

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