Light Hearted

Light Hearted redux – Special edition, Eric S. Martin of the Florida Keys Reef Lights Foundation

Eric S. Martin

This Special Edition of Light Hearted was originally posted on June 11, 2019. The entire show is an interview with Eric S. Martin, who is president of the Florida Keys Reef Lights Foundation and a board member of the Florida Lighthouse Association. The conversation ranges from the history of the Florida Reef lights and the difficulties involved with their preservation, to the current auction that holds the fate of Sand Key Lighthouse in the balance. Eric, who lives far inland in Orlando, Florida, also talks about how he got so involved in lighthouse preservation.

Following is the podcast episode and the complete transcription.

JEREMY

You are listening to Light Hearted, the official podcast of the United States Lighthouse Society. My name is Jeremy D’Entremont.

This is a special edition of Light Hearted. It’s kind of a preview for a week of three Florida related episodes that will be released the week of July 15th. We’re also releasing it now because the Florida Keys Reef Lights Foundation is in the thick of a current GSA auction of Sand Key Lighthouse, one of the Florida reef lights.

Sand Key Lighthouse, Florida; 1996 photo by Ralph Eshelman, U.S. Lighthouse Society.

I had the opportunity on June 10th to speak on the phone with Eric S. Martin, president of the Florida Keys Reef Lights Foundation, and a board member of the Florida Lighthouse Association. This entire program will be my conversation with Eric, which ranged from some of the history of the Florida reef lights and the difficulties involved with their preservation to the auction that holds the fate of the Sandy Key Lighthouse in the balance.

We also discussed the early days of the Florida Lighthouse Association, and we talked about how Eric — who lives far inland in Orlando, Florida — got so involved in lighthouse preservation. Let’s listen to the conversation now.

MUSIC INTERLUDE

JEREMY

Thank you so much for joining me today, Eric — I really appreciate it — for our special edition of Light Hearted. So, first of all, Eric, for the uninitiated people who might not know anything about the Florida reef lights, let’s start with the basics. What exactly are the Florida reef lights? And maybe you could start by saying how many are there and tell us about what they are, exactly.

ERIC S. MARTIN

George Meade, USLHS archives

Okay. There’s a total of six reef lighthouses that are actually built on the reef. So when you go out there on a boat, you’ll actually see the legs disappear into the water. They sit in usually four to six feet of water. These are cast-iron metal structures. From the distance, they kind of look like the Eiffel Tower. And then when you see them up close, you’ve got that beautiful water that you can see through and see fishes and things, and then as your boat gets close to the lighthouse you realize that, you know, these structures are all over a hundred feet tall. So these are not small lighthouses. The first three were made by George Meade of Civil War fame, Gettysburg, but he was a lighthouse engineer and he was in charge of building the first three. And they’re all still standing but they’re all in danger. The lighthouses are approximately 20, 25 miles apart. So it’s actually a little tricky getting to see them all because of the distance — there’s, you know, over a hundred miles between the first one and the last one. And that’s just kind of the short explanation of it.

JEREMY

Yeah. I know there’s a lot more to it than that. They’re certainly not traditional looking lighthouses when the average person thinks of what a lighthouse looks like. They don’t think of something that looks like the Florida reef lights. Some people might even consider them ugly. What would be your answer to that if somebody called them ugly?

ERIC S. MARTIN

Well, again, I’d make the Eiffel Tower reference. The Eiffel Tower actually looks a little bit like Sand Key. It’s, four-sided. The balcony around the lantern room is also square. They might’ve even been inspired by it because the Eiffel Tower wasn’t built until 1889 and, and the reef lights started to be built in 1852 and three before the Civil War and three afterwards. But at the time they were the tallest metal structures on earth. But I think they’re beautiful. And especially since they’re on the water, it makes them even more so. And once we restore them, they ‘ll actually look better, too. They’re looking very tired at this point. Five of have had no maintenance since 2015 and for a decade or two before that it was deferred maintenance. So it was never really kept up once it was automated. That’s where the downhill started.

JEREMY

Right. Now, tell me about the Florida Keys Reef Lights Foundation. First of all, when was it started?

ERIC S. MARTIN

It was started in 2001. Our founder, who unfortunately passed away a number of years ago now, he had been talking to a congressman. And he told him about the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act that they were going to pass. And Tom started working on organizing an organization for all the reef lights, realizing that some people consider them ugly and the fact that they were offshore and there seemed to be no group that was doing anything for those lighthouses. And there, there still hasn’t been, up to this point. So he went ahead and got the organization started.

So we’ve been around for a while and it’s been tough, because the Coast Guard wouldn’t let us bring people onto the lighthouses. We didn’t think we could get a long-term lease, and originally these were supposed to be released. The five of them were supposed to be released in 2013. However, that got delayed for many years. Finally, 2016 or so, Sand Key was supposed to be up. That finally came up in 2018. We applied; we were denied. We disagreed and they don’t think we have enough experience, but we haven’t been given the opportunity to work on any of them. So how can we get experienced if the government won’t let us do any work on them?

JEREMY

Now the Tom you mentioned a minute ago was Tom Taylor, right?

ERIC S. MARTIN

Correct. He also helped start the Florida lighthouse Association.

JEREMY

Right. Yeah. I corresponded with him, certainly a very important person in the history of the preservation of Florida lighthouses. So let’s talk about Sand Key Lighthouse. You just mentioned it is now currently up for auction, correct?

ERIC S. MARTIN

Correct. They put it up for auction at the end of March. They usually go two months, which would be the end of May. However, they still haven’t put a deadline for when the auction will end. When they do that, it’ll be like a three-day notice. And at that point, if the last day nobody bids, the auction ends. But if somebody bids, the auction is extended one business day and it keeps going until nobody—until people stop bidding. So we don’t know when the deadline is going to start and we don’t know if it will be extended or not. But we are raising money for that. We did have the lead in the bid for about a month. We thought, start raising money. Because if the bid goes up a thousand, you have to have two thousand and retake the lead. So we were looking to raise two thousand and then out of the blue, the bid went up three thousand, which therefore meant we needed four thousand.

And so we are in second place basically. And we have just about enough money to raise the bid again, but we’re kind of concerned that when we bid, you know, will they bid again. So we’re also putting in for an emergency grant with the Florida Lighthouse Association. So we’ll see how that goes. But in the meanwhile we keep raising money. And a couple of people ask, okay, if you lose the bid, what happens to the money? Well, our goal is to save and restore the six reef lights. We are going to apply for the other four through the regular transfer. And we’ve already given money to Fowey Rocks before to start what they considered repairs that need to be done right away. And we financed two out of the three of those. They still don’t have any money for the lighthouse in their budget. So we could certainly help them if we don’t get Sand Key.

JEREMY

I’m looking at the, uh, the auction page on the GSA website in front of me right now. I see the current bid is $20,000. Am I correct in stating that if the bid doesn’t go up, the GSA can actually cancel the auction anytime if they don’t feel the bidding is high enough. I think that’s happened a few times.

ERIC S. MARTIN

Well, it’s federal government. They can do whatever they want.

JEREMY

That’s true.

ERIC S. MARTIN

I believe that it’s listed in the many pages of bidding instructions that they could. I did point out to them, and kudos that they put it in the description that this is a lighthouse without a house. The keeper’s house had burned down in ‘89. And of course there was damage from that. And the repairs that were made from there might also be questionable, if they were made to last as long as what the original structure was. So there’s no house, there’s no keeper’s house. There’s only the lantern room. And even the ladder they built to go up there evidently is falling apart. We were supposed to get an inspection, but the inspection was from the boat. So one of the first things we would do if we owned it is to get professional assessments. So we can make sure that we repair things in the right order. We’d have to make sure that the structure stands. It was made to withstand hurricanes. However, the problem is that was assuming that you did maintenance on the lighthouse. And like I said, there really hasn’t been any in the last four or five years and little before that. So it’s been quite a while since there’s been any major work done.

JEREMY

Can you say any more about the condition it’s in? Do you know how, like how rusty it is or, you know, how secure is it at this point as far as you know?

ERIC S. MARTIN

Fowey Rocks Lighthouse, USLHS archives

Well, we’ve got pictures, Thank goodness for zoom lenses. There are tension rod; those are the rods that can be adjusted. Some of those are rusting through, just like Fowey Rocks. We actually paid to have a 26-foot tension rod made to replace one that had broken on Fowey Rocks. Well, they’re the same situation. Sand Key is built a bit different. It is square instead of octagonal, like the rest of them, so it’s got more legs. It’s actually got a total of 16 legs instead of the nine that the others have. So it is built a bit different, but we know there’s lots of work to be done. But no, we’re not kidding ourselves. It’s really a major restoration. When I worked with the Cape St. George group, I did learn that people who really want the lighthouse to be restored can be very generous. We had services that were offered for free. We had materials that we were able to buy at cost instead of retail. So there can be — some of that cost, if you just hired a contractor and let him do everything, some that cost can be greatly reduced if you can subcontract out different contractors to do the different aspects of the lighthouse.

JEREMY

Yeah. I can’t help wondering who else might be bidding on this. I mean, I don’t know if you want to say anything about that, but it just makes you wonder. I wonder if it’s other preservation groups or – what are they, what do they want it for?

ERIC S. MARTIN

I doubt there’s any preservation groups other than ours. But you know, I could be wrong. I haven’t heard anything along that line. You know, there’s a lot of people out there that have a little bit of spare change and they want to say that they own a lighthouse. And if they’re not really thinking about the condition this one’s in, which is very poor, yeah, you could go out there for, I don’t know, a picnic or something, and then, you know, and just leave back to the hotel for, for the night. But it’s going to cost millions to fix these. And I know there’s been some people on past auctions that they got carried away at the auction. They spent all their cash money on the lighthouse, and then they didn’t have any money left to really fix it up, except for making additional money later. And then some of them just gave up and tried to sell it. We’ve had one or two that are basically trying to flip a lighthouse, but that’s a very dangerous thing to do. Most people can’t afford to buy a lighthouse and the banks won’t loan you money to buy one. So it’s a very difficult situation in real estate to try to do that. But yet we have some who do, who do try to do that kind of thing.

JEREMY

Yeah. It looks like there’ve been four bidders. It looks like four different bidders.

ERIC S. MARTIN

That’s the thing I don’t know for sure. They used to have usernames. If you bid again, that’d be like, okay, you bid as George and then you bid again and it’d show up as George again. So I don’t know if each bid gets a new number, so hard to see if there’s four bidders, or maybe there’s only two bidders or three bidders. I really don’t know, but I guess the bottom line is, we want to be the high bidder. And I’ve done reading of history and such, and I know that private ownership of lighthouses, not only under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, but surplus lighthouses before that — private ownership can save a lighthouse, but can also just be a slow death. West Rigolets was a well-made lighthouse on stilts and survived many a hurricane, but when a family bought it, they never did any work on it. And the legs were in poor shape. When the hurricane came and took the lighthouse away, there was nothing left of it, except for the stumps of the legs that it stood on. And yet Cape Florida was owned privately for a while and the guy built a sea wall. And that kept the shore from eroding because if it had eroded much more, the lighthouse would have fallen. And he didn’t do any restoration to the lighthouse, but he kept it from falling into the sea.

So private ownership is kind of a 50-50 thing. I don’t have any percentages. There’s just too many cases, it would take a lot of research to do. But I know there’s enough stories that a private owner, even a guy with money – it doesn’t mean he’s going to fix it up. And the government doesn’t make you do anything. The only thing you’re restricted is, if they buy Sand Key and tried to paint it hot pink, okay. It was never hot pink. So in theory, the government would come in and make them repaint it. Whether it ever actually happened or not, that’s another thing.

JEREMY

Right. I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s a crapshoot. I know some private owners who have done just absolutely beautiful jobs maintaining their lighthouses. They couldn’t have done better, but there’s also cases where, you know, ten years after buying privately, buying a lighthouse through a GSA auction, the owner hasn’t even seen their lighthouse in person. So, I don’t know what the percentage is either, but it’s an absolute crapshoot.

ERIC S. MARTIN

Oh, and then there’s the in between. You buy the lighthouse, you get a little carried away on bidding, you’ve got some money left over. So now you try to repair it on the cheap, but you end up damaging the lighthouse trying to save money. So that’s bad too. So private ownerships are really a gamble.

JEREMY

Yeah. I agree completely. So we’ve touched on some of the aspects, but would you like to say a little bit more about the challenges involved with taking care of these lighthouses? The challenges are enormous in the case of the reef lights.

ERIC S. MARTIN

Well, as all people associated with offshore lighthouses will know, that’s a challenge because even if it’s a sunny day, if the wind’s blowing too hard, you can’t get your boat out there safely. And in our case, when you get close to the lighthouse, the water is only four to six feet deep. So you have to have a shallow draft to even get close to the lighthouse. Salt is also a bad problem. I’ve been up to the Michigan Lighthouse Alliance conference. And you know, most of those lighthouses are on the Great Lakes, so they don’t have to deal with salt any. Now one advantage we have over the Great Lakes is we can work on ours 12 months a year. Up North, when the ice freezes, that kind of limits on what you can do as far as getting to the lighthouse, but all offshore lighthouses, your expenses are more. You don’t know for sure if you can get out there on a certain day because of the weather. If you hire out contractors, a lot of contractors won’t even bid on it because they haven’t done work offshore. They don’t have the boats or the barges or whatever they would need to do their work. So competitive bidding can be nonexistent on some of these.

JEREMY

And then there’s hurricanes.

ERIC S. MARTIN

Oh yes. We do have a few of those.

JEREMY

Yeah. Did Hurricane Irma do any damage in 2017?

Speaker 4 (18:02):

They did. I’m going to be given a call to the Coast Guard. Because I don’t know if they did any kind of inspection since it’s, you know, abandoned pretty much. But I know from pictures, the lightning rod’s gone, and it didn’t have a ventilation ball. It had like a ventilation shaft; that’s actually broken, too. So the bottom half’s still there, but the top is gone. I imagine the already weak ladders going to the top, are weaker, or they may have even fallen off. But the big damage was to American Shoal. Because that was close to where the hurricane went through the Keys. The roof is metal on the lantern room. And two of those pie-shaped pieces basically started to peel off like an old tin can, when you would put the little key in there and roll the metal back. That’s what it looks like. So you’ve got two panels that are half torn up so water’s getting in there and most of the glass in the lantern room is gone. So the lighthouse is getting water on the inside. And of course it wasn’t designed for that. I don’t know how much of it’s getting down to the keeper’s house. I’d asked the government if they would do some kind of emergency repairs or let us do emergency repairs, but I never got any kind of feedback on that.

JEREMY

Eric, can you tell me a little bit about how you personally got involved originally with the Florida Lighthouse Association and also with the reef lights?

ERIC S. MARTIN

Well, the Florida Lighthouse Association was kind of indirect. I was going to the beach for the weekend and somebody had left a pamphlet on Ponce Inlet Lighthouse. So I like history. And so I went down there and climbed up the lighthouse. And of course when you get down, you’ve got the gift shop there and I bought a book or two. And then they had the blueprints to the lighthouse and that kind of thing. So I started getting into it. And then, we had somewhat limited internet back in the day. And I looked up Florida lighthouses and the Florida Lighthouse Association actually had a website. And at that time, most nonprofits weren’t on the web. They hadn’t seen the potential, but Tom knew. And basically we’d piggyback on another guy’s website. So he basically donated a space and that’s how I found out about them. It’s like, okay, they needed a different lighthouse, every three or four months. They get to climb lighthouses that are closed. Because at the time, there was only a handful open. Now there’s more, and of course there’s still a fair amount that are closed, are only open up a limited time. But they were always able to get ahold of the group that owned the lighthouse or leased the lighthouse and make a deal with them. And then we’d be able to get inside and climb and such. And then when you go to the meetings, there’d be a speaker, the history of the lighthouse, but then they also got into the saving and restoring lighthouses. We’d also have a raffle and usually an auction. So they would raise money and then give it to a local lighthouse group to help them fix their like also so little by little, I went from being a lighthouse hunter, just someone who wanted to see them, take pictures, and climb, to getting into the saving and restoring.

And, of course, Orlando has no lighthouses. So I have to go somewhere if I want to work on one. I had joined the Cape St. George Lighthouse association or society. And I got this email, bad news, the weather, the water undermined the lighthouse; the lighthouse has fallen. And, oh man, you know, we were trying to save that and raising money and such. But they went ahead and salvaged the bricks and rebuilt it on the main part of the Island. Then three years later, you could climb the lighthouse and they did a really good job. That’s where I learned a lot of things about how generous people could be. They had auctioned off to have your little nameplate on the steps. And some guy was on the Island and he was kind of poking over because they were working on the lighthouse that wasn’t done and they mentioned that, and he says, you know, “I make those plates.” He says, “I can make them in between jobs. You won’t get them quick,” but he says, “I won’t charge anything.” So that was another thing they got and it wasn’t a huge expense, but still, you know, a little here, a little there and  before you know you’re talking about tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

JEREMY

Now you still live in Orlando. Is that right?

ERIC S. MARTIN

Oh yes.

JEREMY

Yeah. Well, it’s not that far from the coast. Because just a few weeks ago my wife and I flew to Orlando and drove to St. Augustine and Ponce Inlet and Jupiter Inlet. So it’s not that far.

ERIC S. MARTIN

Yeah. I usually go to Ponce Inlet to climb because iCape Canaveral’s very limited on when people can go over there because you’re on the Air Force base.

JEREMY

Now you are also on the board of the Florida Lighthouse Association, right?

ERIC S. MARTIN

Yeah. I’m district two commissioner. We have divided Florida into four parts. So, the president said, “You already represent six of the lighthouses — do want to go ahead and represent six of the others?” So I do that and we report any news that we know that’s going on with the lighthouses in our district and if somebody wants to apply for a grant we help them out with the paperwork.

JEREMY

And the Florida Lighthouse Association is certainly one of the most respected regional lighthouse associations in the country. Could you say a little bit about the mission and scope of what the Florida Lighthouse Association does?

ERIC S. MARTIN

Yeah, it’s a little complicated, because it’s almost two organizations in one. One was the association of lighthouses, that lighthouses should work together and share knowledge, which in some places in the country was unheard of. You had your lighthouse, you didn’t share information with the one down the street, they were your competition. You know, you only worked on your lighthouse. And Tom’s idea was you should share resources. The ones that are successful can lend their knowledge to the ones who are just starting up and that type of thing. But it was also a membership type of organization where those interested in lighthouses could learn more, could end up donating money directly or doing the auctions or the raffles and helping out the local lighthouse groups and meanwhile, their pay off was basically, they got into a lot of lighthouses that were closed at the time that it was started. Like I said, more of them are open now than before, but we’re still getting into ones that are either closed or severely restricted. You know, some of those – “Oh, we’re open once a month.” Well, you know, that’s probably convenient if you live down the street, not so much if you have to travel very far.

JEREMY

Yeah. Well it’s better than nothing.

ERIC S. MARTIN

I should add one thing — again, back to Tom Taylor, who was a great guy, I’m glad I got to meet him — when you heard about these specialty tags the state was doing, he found out what we needed to do to get a specialty tag,

JEREMY

A license plate, that is.

ERIC S. MARTIN

Right, a license plate. And at that time you had to collect a certain number of signatures from people who had cars that said that they’d be interested in buying it. And then you also had to pay so many thousands of dollars. Well, they started collecting signatures. I collected some myself, and money. But then the state kept changing the rules. And every time they changed the rules, you’re not grandfathered in. You have to abide by the new rules. So he was chasing a moving target. Well, unfortunately, like I said, he passed away, but the presidents after that kept raising money. And then we finally had the one who says let’s get this done. Let’s just go full force, do what we need to do. Because you have to have the legislature approve it. It’s not like just getting it approved by a department. The actual legislature has to approve it. So we finally got approval and that tag has been bringing money in every year and it’s been going up and we’ve got a new design that should come out later this year, which will be even prettier than the old one in the opinion of a lot of people. So we’re hoping it’ll sell even more and groups like the Florida Keys Reef Lights Foundation can apply for grants through the Florida Lighthouse Association. And that helps out a lot because even though they encourage you to get matching funds, you don’t have to have matching funds. So you don’t end up being, especially when you’re trying to just get started, you can get some money going and get that first project done. And of course, if you can couple it with other grants that’s even better, but it’s a great thing. And it took a lot of effort. I think it was $64,000 was the money we had to pay. And then they switched from signatures to having a marketing company that would call people and explain what it was and whether they would approve of it or not. But anyway, we finally got her approved back in late 2008. So it’s been doing great. It’s helping save and restore a lot of lighthouses.

JEREMY

That’s great. And there’s information about that on the website of the Florida Lighthouse Association. I want to mention that the website for the association is floridalighthouses.org. And if people go to that, they can get all the information on the Florida lighthouse license plate. I think all the information they need is on there. Is that correct?

ERIC S. MARTIN

Correct.

JEREMY

Yeah. And lots of other information about the association, how to join, how to donate, and so forth. And there’s a website for the Florida Keys Reef Lighthouse Foundation. Did I get, did I get that right? What I just said? I think I got all right. Yeah.

ERIC S. MARTIN

Yeah. It’s a mouthful. I had talked about shortening the name and they said it was important to keep it the way it was, but at any rate we shortened it to reef lights.

JEREMY

Yeah. Florida Keys Reef Lights Foundation. Yeah. Floridakeysreeflightsfoundation.org. So people can go to that and learn all about the organization. And there’s an essay by you about the —  basically a fairly short history of the reef lights on there. That’s very well done. And all the up-to-date information about what’s going on. And I wish you a lot of luck with the auction. I sure hope you win that auction for Sand Key. And people can actually donate to help out with that through the website. Is that correct?

ERIC S. MARTIN

Through the website, or if there’s any issues — somebody was having issues with the PayPal link for some reason, even though it seems to be working for everybody else. There’s also the Gofundme page and they can just for this search, they can just put in the F K R L F  — that’s the first letter order of our name. Yeah. And then that’ll pop up and there’s only one or two and obviously the one with the lighthouse picture is ours. So they can go that route, too, or they can do the old fashioned — write a check and mail it to me at 1067 Drift Creek Cove. That’s three words, Orlando, Florida, 32828.

JEREMY

Okay. There’s also an email address?

ERIC S. MARTIN

Ericlighthouse@yahoo.com

JEREMY

Again, Ericlighthouse@yahoo.com. So if you have any trouble with anything else, just shoot Eric an email at Ericlighthouse@yahoo.com. So again, Eric S. Martin, I know there’s so much we could talk about. There’s a large scope of projects that you’re involved with, with the reef lights and the Florida lighthouses in general. So I’m sure we’ll talk again at some point in the future, but I really appreciate you spending this time with me today for this special edition of Light Hearted. And it’s kind of a preview of the Florida lighthouse week on Light Hearted. That’ll be coming up pretty soon. So again, good luck with everything and thanks so much.

ERIC S. MARTIN

Thank you, Jeremy.

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