A new life for our lighthouses

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The government is passing ownership of certain beacons to people and groups that agree to care for them

The government is passing ownership of certain beacons to people and groups that agree to care for them

Old Saybrook, Conn., has an old friend known locally as the Breakwater Light, which stands at the end of a jetty that extends into Long Island Sound at the mouth of the Connecticut River. Identified by the Coast

Read the other story in this package: Divers salvage lighthouse history

Guard as “excess property,” this lighthouse on the tip of the west breakwall off Fenwick Point is on the list to be passed to a new owner. The town would like to be that new owner … if only it can wade through the red tape.

“The lighthouse is the defining characteristic of this town, and if anyone should secure it the town should,” says first selectman Michael Pace. “But my belief is that a lighthouse ought to stay in the government’s ownership.”

With many of these sentries getting on in years, the Coast Guard is passing ownership of them to willing communities or non-profit organizations. The agency has transferred 37 lighthouses under the provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, established in 2000, according to Daniel Koski-Karell, a cultural resources specialist from the environmental management office at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington. “An additional 51 lights are at various stages in the transfer program,” says Koski-Karell. (The program is administered by the U.S. General Services Administration.)

The act states that the government can pass these structures to non-profit groups, state and local governments, educational agencies and community development organizations at no cost, provided they comply with the conditions set forth in the Lighthouse Preservation Act. Those include making the light station available to the general public for education, recreation, cultural or historic preservation purposes. If a group isn’t found, the lighthouse is auctioned off. The Coast Guard continues to maintain the actual light equipment, fog signal and functions under the new ownership, but the new owners must be financially able to maintain the light stations.

Koski-Karell says each lighthouse goes through a process where the Coast Guard determines that the property can be given away, then the GSA determines when and if the lighthouse will be made available for ownership. The National Park Service evaluates each light station and determines how many it can handle passing on in a given year.

“There are many steps in the overall process,” says Koski-Karell. “After they are evaluated, the Park Service might say they can only handle two, three or four in any given location.”

David Siegenthaler, manager of the National Park Service’s National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Program, says the process for non-profit groups to attain a light station is rigorous. “It has to be for the benefit of public education and interest,” says Siegenthaler, who is overseeing the transfer of the Burroughs Island Lighthouse in WashingtonState off Anacortes. “And we require details about the organization, like how they are funded and how they would be able to sustain the facility.”

And although the cost of maintaining each lighthouse varies, Koski-Karell says they all require a significant investment.

Pace, the Old Saybrook first selectman, says making the Saybrook Breakwater Light available to the public would be difficult since there is no easy access by land or water. “There are a lot of intricacies for this particular lighthouse,” he says.

The Saybrook Breakwater Light (also known as the Outer Light) was first lighted June 15, 1886. It cost $20,000 to build and was erected to warn sailors of the shoals at the mouth of the river. The 49-foot cylindrical cast iron structure — with a “basement,” four main floors, a watch room and a lantern room — has withstood the test of time, including the powerful New England Hurricane of 1938.

“It’s been a part of the scenery for the past 80 years I’ve been here,” says local resident Lafayette Keeney, 81. “I remember when a couple lived in that lighthouse.”

In fact, Keeney remembers bringing magazines out to the keepers. “We used to walk out there when the jetty was pretty level, but now it’s all broken up.

“The light is … automated [in 1959] just like the foghorn, but it serves a very important job,” says Keeney. “It’s located right by the mouth of the Connecticut River, and we have boats that come from all over. I think it is important enough that [the Coast Guard] should just hold on to it.”

Jeremy D’Entremont, author of the “Lighthouse Treasury” series of books on the history of these structures, says he’s particularly concerned about the future of offshore lighthouses, those located on islands or other structures and not easily accessible. “I believe the Coast Guard needs a different system for the offshore [lights], because they are very different from onshore,” says D’Entremont, 51. “Access is such a problem for them.”

D’Entremont says the lack of easy public access makes it difficult for organizations to raise money to preserve lighthouses because they cannot be used as tourist attractions. “They are trying to shoehorn a policy into any situation,” he says. “Most of the time it works, but sometimes it doesn’t.”

D’Entremont says the drawback of auctioning off a lighthouse as a last resort is not knowing whether the individual will actually continue to care for it or appreciate its history. “There was a lighthouse [Hog Island Shoal Lighthouse] in Portsmouth, R.I., that was sold to a couple in North Dakota,” says D’Entremont. “Maybe they will take good care of it, but the idea of selling a Rhode Island lighthouse to a couple in North Dakota seems risky.”

Casey Jordan, 44, of Ansonia, Conn., is carrying the torch for offshore lighthouses through private ownership. Jordan, an attorney and professor in the Division of Justice and Law Administration at WesternConnecticutStateUniversity, owns Goose Rocks Lighthouse off the island of North Haven, Maine. “I’m not what you’d call a lighthouse expert, but I got the appeal of it,” says Jordan. “Historic preservation is a labor of love.”

Jordan acquired her island lighthouse in a sealed-bid auction in July 2006 and has been pouring time, money and resources into renovating it. “I’ve been involved in historic preservation since I was 25 years old, when I bought a 23-room mansion in upstate New York,” she says. “It is always a challenge to get buildings to be historically accurate but update them for modern living.”

Jordan says the suggested bid for Goose Rocks Lighthouse was $45,000; she bid $23,000. She also had bid on Hog Island Shoal Lighthouse, but when the bidding passed $100,000, she says it moved way out of her league. “That sealed my fate because we could never go near that, and I don’t think it’s worth that,” she says. “[However] I thought that my bid for Goose Rocks was so cheap, I’d never win.”

Jordan says the bidding process for these lighthouses differs from typical auctions because the GSA reserves the right to reject the highest bid if it isn’t close enough to lighthouse’s appraised value. “I believe that $30,000 to $35,000 was the GSA’s target amount on Goose Rocks,” she says. “However, I argued that the additional expense of the remote location [11 miles from the mainland] would require so much more time, effort, coordination and transportation costs that I would split the difference with the GSA and up my price to $27,000. The GSA accepted that amount, based on the logic of the remoteness of the location.”

And remote it is. In order to make repairs, Jordan has to load materials onto a truck and then take a ferry to the island. From there, the materials are taken out to the lighthouse in a small boat and hoisted up. “If a saw blade breaks, the nearest replacement is a day away,” says Jordan. “Because we are so far from the mainland, we got a generator for our power tools. We’ve done new flooring and trim. We are also in the works of obtaining lead-encapsulating paint. Even though we have no proof of lead it’s good to take precautions.”

Though the light, fog signal and horn on Goose Rocks are run on solar receptors provided and maintained by the Coast Guard, Jordan says the power system for the facility is completely separate.

She has handed over her lighthouse to Beacon Preservation, a non-profit agency she spearheaded to help ensure that historic light stations don’t disappear into the past. She hopes to finish the renovations and open Goose Rocks to the public in spring 2008. “I think lighthouses represent a very romantic time in our history,” says Jordan. “When I am up on the beacon deck and can see 360 degrees — the pines, cliffs at 60 feet up — it’s a feeling I cannot describe. There’s a freedom, a hopefulness, and it makes me giddy like a child. They are very important, and I hope my non-profit can help preserve these valuable pieces of our past.”

For more information on available lighthouses, visit www.propertydisposal.gsa.gov and click on “Lighthouse Program.” For more information on the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, visit www.nps.gov and enter “National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act” in the search window.