Digest>Archives> May 2001

Memories of Alligator Reef

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Alligator Reef Light, Florida. First lit in 1873, ...
Photo by: Don Summerville

Dick Gooravin spent his first months in the U.S. Coast Guard on a Coast Guard Cutter in the Florida Keys before he was transferred to lighthouse duty at Alligator Reef Lighthouse.

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Daily clean up of the deck at Alligator Reef ...
Photo by: Dick Gooravin

When he first arrived at the ocean lighthouse surrounded by water he thought to himself, “What have I got myself into?” But he liked it so much, that he went on to spend the next three years of his Coast Guard hitch at the lighthouse. He said it turned out to be “real nice duty, relaxing. We worked four hours a day on the structure, maintaining, painting and whatnot. And then there was a four watch at night.”

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One of the crewmen in the 1950’s washing his ...
Photo by: Dick Gooravin

He went on to describe duty at the station, “There were four personnel, three there at all times. There was one person on a six-day compensatory liberty all the time. We alternated through the 30-day period. We spent 24 days out there and six days ashore. We had it pretty much our own way. As long as the station was maintained properly and came up to inspection, everything was fine. Nobody bothered us.”

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Dick Gooravin heading to shore on the Coast Guard ...

Gooravin said that the lighthouse had four 12-by-12 foot rooms, with a galley, living room, and two bedrooms with two bunks in each. There was an engine room, which housed the generators and batteries. The walkway around the outside was all metal decking and the inside was wood over metal.

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This aerial photograph taken in 1975 shows just ...
Photo by: Richard Clayton

Underneath the main deck were two large barrels that collected the rain water from the roof for drinking. He recalled that from time to time they would crawl up there and clean it so the rain water would be safe to drink.

Gooravin said that the Coast Guard tried to put personnel out on the light that could handle the lonely duty. “They interview you, find out what type of person you are, if you can stand semi-isolation.” He went on to say how he didn’t mind the duty because he liked to read and fish. “Plenty of fishing out there then, it sure was great. We’d go down and get lobster or grouper or yellowtail or anything you wanted.”

He went on to say, “We had our own boat, a 23-foot inboard and we’d travel to Homestead. There were no markets down there in Islamorada. We had a big freezer out there. We went to the old A&P store in Homestead and bought all our supplies.

“We rested quite a bit. We had to. You work four hours up in that structure, hanging in a boatswain’s chair chipping and painting and wire-brushing - you work four hours at that and you’ve got a four-hour watch at night.

“When I first went out there we had a telephone line. The old crank phone on the wall. We used to talk for hours on the telephone to the operators in Homestead. That was a local call from the lighthouse to Homestead.”

The lighthouse got its name from the USS Alligator that was assigned the task of patrolling the waters in that area, mainly looking for pirates. The vessel and its crew were noteworthy in many events. But the one they are most known for was a battle that took place on November 9, 1822, when they battled eight pirate ships. Four crew members plus the captain were killed in the battle, but they captured all but one of the pirate ships.

Gooravin spent many a night out there in storms and even a hurricane. He recalled that you could feel the waves hit the structure. “You think it sways, but you’re not sure. I guess if we’d gone to the top, up at the light, we could have felt it sway. But, the heck with that. As long as we keep the light lit, that was it.”

During a storm in the 1960’s, the lower platform of the tower was completely destroyed and one keeper, as it was described by Gooravin, “went off his rocker.” The lighthouse was automated shortly after that.

Special thanks to the Miami Herald and Nancy Klingener with information used by permission and Dick Gooravin a former keeper at the Alligator Reef Lighthouse.

This story appeared in the May 2001 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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