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Originally published Tuesday, July 5, 2011 at 10:31 AM

'Lighthouse Larry' wants site to honor beacons

Man builds replicas of offshore lighthouses, wants tourists and fellow Florida Keys residents to learn about the history,

McClatchy Newspapers

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MIAMI — Miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean, six rugged iron lighthouses have weathered more than 130 years of saltwater, sun and storms to protect mariners from running aground on the world's third largest coral reef.

The towering beacons, whose bright warning lights can be seen along the treacherous sea route from Key West to Miami, also protect the important underwater habitat from damage by small pleasure craft and large cargo ships.

"These are not the elegant, normal brick lighthouses on land that people usually think of," said lifelong Florida Keys resident Larry Herlth, 51. "They are macho structures."

Herlth, known as "Lighthouse Larry" because he builds replicas of the offshore lighthouses, said he wants tourists and fellow Keys residents to learn about their fascinating history, and to take an interest in their preservation.

At the vacant site of the demolished Southwinds Motel in Islamorada, Fla., Herlth has proposed a public park displaying replicas averaging 20 feet tall of the Keys reef lighthouses in the order that they are in the sea. Starting at the north end of the reef is Fowey Rocks off Key Biscayne. Next is Carysfort Reef off Key Largo, followed by Islamorada's Alligator Reef, Marathon's Sombrero Key, American Shoal off Sugar Loaf and ending with Sand Key off Key West.

Brenda Altmeier, a founding member of the nonprofit Florida Keys Reef Lights Foundation and cultural resource program specialist for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, supports the idea.

"The offshore reef lights are in poor shape now, and who knows how long they will be here," she said. "The park may one day be the only place to see them."

The proposed park site is a 1.1-acre piece of unused green space nestled between the Old Highway and U.S. 1 near mile marker 82. In 2005, Islamorada bought the land with state funds and now is deciding what to do with it.

There is opposition. The Islamorada Foundation — a nonprofit citizens' group formed last year to enhance and preserve parks, common green space and recreation — has submitted its own plans for the site that feature picnic pavilions and a sundial sculpture.

Islamorada Foundation Chairman J.C. Mikula said at a Village Council workshop this week that the foundation would consider putting in its plan just one replica, Alligator Reef, the only one off Islamorada.

"They all are historical Keys sites that have been protecting the Keys since the 1800s," Herlth said. "They all deserve attention."

As a young boy, Herlth thought it was cool to see lighthouse keepers in blue uniforms while on his stepfather's lobster fishing boat. But he did not develop a passion for lighthouses until a couple years ago, when the founder of Australian Gold sun care products asked him to construct a jetty light.

Herlth, a former general contractor and artist, created a miniature version of Alligator Reef Lighthouse from a picture. He was hooked. He has since built five more, including an 8-footer on display in a bank lobby and a 20-footer at the entrance to Kaiyo Grill.

"Did you know that when Sombrero Key Lighthouse was built in 1858, it was the tallest iron structure in the world for 31 years until the Eiffel Tower was built?" Herlth said.

At 142 feet, Sombrero Key Lighthouse is the tallest of the six and the last of three built by Army Lt. George Meade, who later rose to the rank of general and is famous for being the Union forces leader who defeated Gen. Robert E. Lee's Confederate troops at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.

Meade was an engineer when he took over the building of Carysfort Lighthouse, completed in 1852 and the oldest of the six. All use wrought-iron screwpile designs driven into the sea floor and have a skeletal structure that allow waves and high winds to pass through.

Carysfort and Sand Key are on the National Registry of Historic Places. The U.S. Coast Guard now oversees all six, and is working to get the other four put on the registry. Of about 700 lighthouses around the country, 134 are on the list.

"It's overdue," said Eric S. Martin, president of the Reef Lights Foundation, whose mission includes raising funds to help preserve and restore the six.

About 50 years ago, the lighthouse keepers who lived on the structures were replaced by automation.

"A lot of people think the lighthouses have been turned off, but they haven't," said Martin, adding that the lights now are run by batteries charged by solar panels. "Nobody knows how many lives they have saved."

Herlth estimates it takes him 300 to 400 hours to build a detailed, 20-foot replica, using $3,000 to $4,000 in materials.

For the park, Herlth said it would cost about $27,000 to $32,000 to build each lighthouse replica. That includes the cost of hiring at least two people to help build them in a timely manner. He plans to raise funds from private individuals and businesses.

His proposed plan also includes building a sand dune about 8 feet high that would face U.S. 1. Behind it would be a wall with the history of fishing in the Keys.

"If we can't display the lighthouses here," Herlth said while standing on the grassy site, "we'll find somewhere. These are too important a part of our Keys history."

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