TARPON SPRINGS ó For the better part of the last five years, the Anclote Key Lighthouse has essentially been closed to the public due to contaminated soil around the 110-foot tower.
It stands three miles offshore from the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks, on Anclote Key State Park.
But on June 16, the iconic 131-year-old structure off the Pinellas-Pasco county line will once again welcome guests to climb its 127 narrow, spiraling steps to the top. Itís a trek that rewards visitors with some of the best views in the Tampa Bay area, including Honeymoon and Caladesi islands and Clearwater Beach.
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The long-awaited public reopening is the result of efforts by many people and organizations, including the Friends of Anclote Key State Park and Lighthouse. The Friends have done everything from cleaning up the park to getting a fence erected on the property to facilitate new tours of the historic landmark.
"About five years ago, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection closed the lighthouse because the ground was contaminated," said Dan Hogan, president of the Friends group, a nonprofit. "We proposed putting a fence around the lighthouse if that would allow us to reopen it, and they OKíd it."
After receiving a $5,000 grant from the Florida Lighthouse Association, the Friends had the fence installed and the organization held a grand re-opening for members in January.
Hogan said the lighthouse is unique, like the other 28 such structures in the state and every other one in the world.
"Theyíre all different ó different paint schemes and colors, different heights, different light cadences," he explained.
Hogan said the publicís fixation with lighthouses should produce long lines on June 16.
"Itís kind of a big deal when we open it up," he said. Lighthouses "are big tourist magnets."
"The last open house we had about 250 people, and we can only let eight people up at a time for safety reasons, so people should get there early because there will be a line and it can be frustrating."
Anclote Key Park Ranger Tod Cornell echoed Hoganís words.
"There is not a lot of room inside the lighthouse," he said in an email. "It has a narrow interior staircase, with no room to pass. Because of this, only small groups of people can climb at a time."
Cornell also cautioned visitors to wear shoes suitable for walking and climbing, not flip-flops. And he noted neither dogs nor alcohol are allowed at the park.
As the park and lighthouse are accessible only by boat, Hogan and Cornell said, visitors could either arrive by personal watercraft or book a trip with Odyssey Cruise Lines, at the Sponge Docks. An official with the cruise company said seats are filling up fast.
According to the Florida Lighthouse Association website, the Anclote Key Lighthouse was first lit in September 1887 and was manned by a keeper until it was automated by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1952. After falling into disrepair, the lighthouse was decommissioned in 1984 and the facility abandoned before a grassroots effort led to its revival 15 years ago.
"It was down for a long time before being recommissioned in 2003," Hogan said of the $1.5 million restoration project, which included the installation of a replica Fresnel lens for the beacon.