Southern Heroes

Eric S. Martin : The Lighthouse Keeper

The preservationist relighting the way in the Florida Keys

Illustration: Barry Falls

Just a handful of miles off the southernmost tip of the continental United States, the six Florida Keys reef lighthouses have guarded the world’s third-largest living coral reef since the nineteenth century. Once beacons for sailors, the lights have fallen into disrepair in recent years. Their spindly cast-iron legs extend into the aquamarine water, inviting corrosion and battling the winds and waves of hurricanes. Now, with increased use of GPS and other technology, the Coast Guard has deemed all but one of the lights no longer useful. As each structure goes up for auction, Eric S. Martin and his Florida Keys Reef Lights Foundation have applied for a transfer of ownership, or put in a bid for it. “Saving lighthouses doesn’t have the same appeal as other fundraisers,” Martin says. “But we think the history of these places is important.” The engineer George Meade—the same general who would defeat Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg—helped design and supervise the building of the first three, at Carysfort Reef, Sand Key, and Sombrero Key, in the 1850s. At the time, they reigned as the tallest metal structures in the world, and perhaps, Martin suggests, influenced the design of the Eiffel Tower. The other three went up shortly after the Civil War. Martin’s foundation has already raised money to start restoring the Fowey Rocks lighthouse, and is now locked in a bidding war with four other parties over Sand Key. “Our plan is to restore it, then open it up for tours, overnight stays, and events,” says Martin, who refuses to relegate their original purpose to history. “We want to relight them—these are the eyes of the Florida Keys.”


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