MIAMI -- Fittingly, Rob Dixon was dockside on the waters of the Florida Keys when he learned that he and others had a shot at restoring a piece of maritime history.
That’s the Alligator Reef Lighthouse, which was first lit in 1873 and sits four miles off Islamorada in the Upper Keys.
Dixon, a longtime charter boat captain in Islamorada who still runs boats, checked his email to find a message from the U.S. Department of the Interior. It said the federal government was handing over ownership of the lighthouse to the nonprofit he helps run.
“Goosebumps, just goosebumps,” said Dixon, 60, president of the Friends of the Pool, Inc., which announced the acquisition this week. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Alligator Reef Lighthouse is an honored symbol for the Village of Islamorada, appearing in the center of its official seal.
“This is Islamorada’s Statue of Liberty,” said Dixon.
In 2018, the U.S. Coast Guard, which oversees the lighthouses, declared five of the six lighthouses in the Keys as “excess,” meaning they were no longer needed.
One of them was the weather-battered Alligator Reef, named for the USS Alligator, a U.S. Navy schooner that ran aground on the reef in 1822 and sank.
This meant the General Services Administration, which manages procurement and real estate for the federal government, was looking to unload the historic sites for free to either a nonprofit agency or to another government entity, in accordance with the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000.
Friends of the Pool spent two years navigating the application process. Dixon himself put in hundreds of hours to finish the paperwork.
“Two copies of the application weighed 7-and-a-half pounds,” Dixon said.
The lighthouse project is estimated to cost about $9 million and take at least five years.
“We realize how much work comes along with it and the responsibility to everyone to stabilize it,” Dixon said.
The goal is to restore the lighthouse to its original condition, Dixon said, making it safe for people to tour it.
The fundraising effort has already started.
“There are a lot of very deep pockets in the Keys,” said Larry Herlth, an artist known as “Lighthouse Larry” for his built-to-scale sculptures of the beacons that can be seen throughout the Keys outside businesses and at the entrance to the city of Marathon. “We’re very optimistic.”
He’s known for having big ideas.
Herlth came up with the Swim for Alligator Lighthouse, an annual eight-mile round-trip swim from shore to the lighthouse that started in 2013. It’s an annual fundraiser for the Friends of the Pool, which also raises money for college scholarships.
“It dawned on me that something needed to be done,” Herlth said. “I decided to swim to the lighthouse just to bring attention to it. One thing led to another.”
Alligator Light is also a revered spot for many locals, who have spread their loved ones’ ashes there.
“My mother and younger brother’s ashes are there,” Herlth said. “Someday mine will be there. I’ll be sprinkled out there for fish food and enjoy every minute of it.”