19th-Century schooner fought pirates, gave its name to reef

The only alligator sighting confirmed on this particular reef was the U.S.S. Alligator, a ship built in the Boston Navy Yard and commissioned in March of 1821. She was built to combat pirates and slave traders. The double-masted schooner was 85 feet long, armed with a dozen cannons, and sailed with a draft (depth beneath of the water) of less than 11 feet.

The piracy fight

The Alligator’s second-to-last captain, Lieutenant William H. Allen, was assigned to the West Indies Squadron to fight piracy in the Florida Straits. By June of 1822, the Alligator had come to port on the northern coast of Cuba. Pirate hunting had been slow when two American sailors approached Lt. Allen and regaled him with tales of piracy. Their ship, the Anna Maria, along with her load of molasses, was being held 42 miles to the east for a $7,000 ransom. The Alligator’s crew of the nine officers and 45 men were quick to take action.

The Anna Maria was being held in a cove alongside a handful of other vessels. They were guarded by the pirate ship “Revenge.” When American forces attacked, two pirate schooners harbored nearby heard the gunfire and entered the fray. Even though the men of the Alligator were outnumbered by 100, most of the crew of the Revenge escaped alive, but not with their ship.

Five men on the Alligator were wounded and at least two were killed. Lt. Allen was wounded twice and counted among the causalities.

A fateful escort

Lieutenant Dale was the next officer to take command of the ship. His first mission was to escort the liberated convoy from its Cuban anchorage to Norfolk, Va. The problem was that the Alligator was built for speed and much of the convoy, the Anna Maria in particular, were built for capacity. It didn’t take long for the ship and her load of molasses to fall behind.

Lt. Dale ordered the Alligator to slow her speed, which required tacking back and forth in the Florida Straits. At approximately 9:30 pm, on the night of November 22, 1822, the Alligator slammed into the Florida reef. She hit it good. The crew worked for a couple of days trying to work the ship off the reef, but despite all efforts, the vessel could not be dislodged.

The following day the Anna Maria arrived on the scene and the Alligator was cleared of tackle, weapons, and cargo, and set afire until she exploded. There was no sense in leaving anything behind for the pirates to salvage.

Nearly three decades later, in 1851, the U.S. Coast Survey commissioned naturalist Louis Agassiz to conduct the first scientific study of the Florida Reef system. As a result, Lieutenant James Totter of the U.S Army Coast Survey spent the following year marking the reef line with 15 iron-shaft day markers. The markers were erected on screw-pile foundations and topped with black barrels; Alligator Reef was among the places marked.

In 1857, the Lighthouse Board recommended a series of iron lighthouses to mark the reef, so it would be “as perfectly lighted as it is believed any capable and intelligent mariner could desire. In a distance of three hundred miles there will then be Dry Tortugas, Sand Key, Dry Bank (Sombrero Reef), Alligator Reef, Carysfort Reef, Cape Florida, and Sebastian Inlet seacoast lights.”

Plans for Alligator Lighthouse were put on hold during the Civil War and the project was shelved until Congress allocated the funds in 1870. The iron-pile lighthouse was forged by Paulding Kemble of Cold Springs, New York and shipped to Indian Key. The 11-acre island, a handful of miles from the reef with a fairly deep harbor and a reputation for remaining relatively mosquito free, was designated the staging ground for the lighthouse.

Erecting the light

While plans for the lighthouse that currently stands over the reef off Islamorada were conceived before the Civil War, funds were not allocated for the project until 1870. To support the massive structure, the corals beneath it were leveled and nine massive iron disks were arranged on the limestone substrate in an octagonal formation to form the base. Iron supports were driven 10 feet into the coral by a 2,000 pound hammer lifted by a steam powered pile-driver, one inch at a time.

When the light was completed in 1873, at a cost of $185,000, it stood 136 feet high, topped by a lamp and lens assembly that produced a beam visible for 18 miles.

Alligator Reef Light was built as a manned outpost. The keeper’s quarters consisted of 4 rooms with double doors: two bedrooms, a kitchen, living room, and an enclosed spiral staircase leading up to the chamber that housed the lamp and lens.

(Although sometimes referred to as “lighthouses,” the reef structures in the Keys are actually “lights” with living quarters, while “lighthouses” are separate structures.)

George R. Billberry was the first keeper. Alligator light and all U.S. lighthouses were integrated into the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939 under the Presidential Reorganization Act. Alligator remained a manned station until the light was automated in 1963.

Today, Alligator Reef Light alerts passing vessels to the impending reef the same way it did in 1873, though now it is home to only a fleet of cormorants and a squadron of barracudas patrolling the shallow waters beneath it. Jim Clupper, a former librarian at the Helen Wadley Branch of the Monroe County Library, suggests that one of the earliest Islamorada libraries was the Alligator light.

Clupper, a researcher and historian responsible for the remarkable Florida Room, a treasure trove of local history at the Islamorada branch, came upon a letter written in 1913 by the Bureau of Lighthouses, stating, “traveling book collections—crates that converted to book shelves—were provided to lighthouse keepers and crews, who were discouraged from reading trashy novels.”

The observation mirrors an account written in The Youth’s Companion about the life of the light keeper, which states: “A reef lighthouse is always well supplied with the latest novels, magazines, and papers by New York steamers that pass close to it every day. A keeper puts out from the light in a small boat. The mate of an approaching steamer has already collected such paper, magazines and novels as the passengers are willing to spare, done them up in a bundle, and tied them to a billet of wood. As the steamer passes the waiting boat, the package is tossed overboard. The lighthouse man waves his thanks, captures the dripping prize, and carries it back to his iron dwelling, where its contents are sorted and dried.”

Light keepers were also there to keep watch on the reefs, and when they observed a wreck, they would raise a flag as a call for assistance. In 1919, assistant keeper Richard C. Richard was on watch when he witnessed a seaplane crash 10 miles from Alligator Light. Reportedly, he immediately launched the lighthouse boat and ran out to the wreck site. The Bureau of Lighthouses praised Richard in its report, stating he “dived into shark-infested waters to locate the 2 men in the plane.”

Plenty of wonder

Alligator Reef is one of the largest reef tracts in the barrier reef chain.

The area is a Sanctuary Preservation Area, which designates a zone where no harvesting of anything (living or dead) within the boundaries, indicated by four large yellow buoys, is allowed.

There is little wreckage left of the U.S.S. Alligator. What visible evidence of shipwrecks remains are piles of ballast stones found between the lighthouse and the reef line to the east.

The spur-and-groove reef formations grow in 14 to 20 feet of water and stretch between the two large yellow marking buoys to the east of the light.

Back in the 1960s, Alligator Reef recorded the highest number of species attributed to a single reef site, with a list of well over 500 species. Today, that would be a difficult count to repeat. Between the general degradation suffered on this reef as well as reefs worldwide, none of Florida’s reefs are what they used to be.

However, Alligator Reef still offers plenty of wonder for divers and snorkelers, with a bevy of tropically scaled fish, parrots and damsels, gobies, and angels, as well as beautiful displays of hard and soft corals. Today, Alligator Reef is one of the more popular Islamorada snorkeling destinations.

The water surrounding the lighthouse is shallow, less than ten feet, and the bottom is covered with purple sea fans and vase sponges. Be sure to investigate beneath the lighthouse, a supreme structure inviting a multitude of species.

Should you venture toward the lighthouse, expect a sentry of barracudas. While they appear snarly-toothed, silvery torpedoes, and though they are a fierce looking lot, barracudas are largely a curious species that seem to make it a habit of tagging along on snorkeling adventures. For those who don’t know better, it can be an unnerving experience. Intrepid snorkelers will turn and give the fish a taste of its own medicine. Swim toward a barracuda, not aggressively, but toward the fish and it will turn and swim away.