ORLANDO, Fla. — What debuted in the late 1800s as a shining beacon of light, then eventually fell into disrepair, is now back in restored condition and open for visitors to climb 127 steps to the top.
The Anclote Key lighthouse is a national historic landmark situated a few miles west of Tarpon Springs along Florida’s Gulf Coast. Although the lighthouse was battered by Hurricane Idalia, which tore through the Big Bend region of the state in late August, it recently received an $800,000 facelift, including a fresh coat of paint inside and out. This follows a $1.5 million restoration project that wrapped up in September 2003, ushering in a bright new chapter with a relighting ceremony.
Modern-day visitors are welcome to view the beacon from a distance or visit the lighthouse by boat during monthly open houses, exploring its storied history which dates back to 1887.
Barbara Hoffman, president of Friends of Anclote Key State Park and Lighthouse, said its construction of cast iron with a supportive exoskeleton has helped this 110-foot structure stand the test of time. Costing about $35,000 of congressional funds in 1887, Anclote Key’s light was built similarly to the Sanibel Lighthouse and Cape San Blas Light.
“They’re built to withstand storms. They have that architecture where the wind can blow through,” Hoffman said. “They’re made of cast iron, so they’re very heavy, and they don’t rust over time. They’re built so high tide and waves can’t get to them, built to last forever.”
Since the first lighting in the late 1880s, a lighthouse keeper and assistant keeper hauled oil up to the top and manually turned on the lighthouse as dusk approached. In 1952, the lighthouse was automated by the Coast Guard as channel markers and navigation aids became more common. It was deactivated in 1985.
Although natural causes haven’t been able to topple or disrupt the long-standing stature, rowdy teens and unwelcome visitors trashed the island and its structures in the 1980s and 1990s after the Coast Guard left. The two keepers’ houses were burnt down by arsonists.
“There was a tree growing up through the middle. People set it on fire, broke the windows and stole pieces of it. It was just really a mess,” Hoffman said. “There was a group of citizens who got together from Tarpon Springs. They got grants and businesses to chip in. It took them several years, but they got enough money to restore the whole thing.”
Today, an off-grid residence sits just north of the lighthouse, and a ranger lives there full-time, guarding the lighthouse against future acts of vandalism.
Aside from the lighthouse, visitors can explore more than seven miles of pristine, undeveloped white sandy beaches within Anclote Key Preserve State Park, which encompasses four islands just north of Honeymoon Island State Park. Primitive camping is available on the northern tip of the main island, where visitors can wander and look out for American oystercatchers, bald eagles and piping plovers. As a preserve, everything is protected, from nesting sea turtles to migratory birds.
In terms of getting to Anclote Key, it’s best to rent a boat or hire a ferry from Tarpon Springs. Kayaking or paddleboarding about 2.5 miles each way from Fred Howard Park is an option, as my friends and I discovered, but paddlers should be wary of tides, winds and currents. Nearby Tarpon Springs offers amazing Greek food and natural sea sponges to purchase in several shops.
During the second weekend of each month through May, the Friends of Anclote Key group will host open houses from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. with a suggested donation of $7 to climb the lighthouse. Visitors should check online before making the trip in case of cancellations due to inclement weather.
“We love our lighthouse. We have some board members who are lighthouse freaks, a few of us are state park freaks and other people just love Tarpon Springs. Some of us are all three,” Hoffman said. “The lighthouse is such an important part of our history … It’s the best lighthouse in the entire country, as far as we’re concerned.”
If you go
The Anclote Key lighthouse, situated about three miles west of Tarpon Springs on the Gulf Coast, is open during the second weekend of each month through May from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. with the next open house Feb. 10-11. Alcohol and dogs are prohibited on the island; shoes are encouraged. For more information and ways to access the island, visit anclotecso.org or floridastateparks.org.
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