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An unlikely find in the Persian Gulf

Staff from a Michigan maritime museum uncover a treasure trove of lighthouse artifacts in Bahrain

Staff from a Michigan maritime museum uncover a treasure trove of lighthouse artifacts in Bahrain

In June 2004 Steve Gronow found himself on a plane bound for the island of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf searching for, of all things, old lighthouse equipment.

“It was certainly an interesting experience going to the Middle East, where with the war going on it’s become increasingly dangerous for Americans to be,” says Gronow, 49, director of the MaritimeExchangeMuseum in Howell, Mich. “It’s not exactly where a person would expect to go looking for lighthouse parts. The risk was worth it, though. We found more rare items there than we thought we would.”

Six months earlier Gronow had contacted the Middle East Navigational Aids Service in Bahrain, wondering if the organization had acetylene buoy lights or Fresnel lighthouse lenses it wanted to sell or transfer to the museum. The privately funded, non-profit MaritimeExchangeMuseum, which has been open for 15 years, specializes in acquiring, restoring, conserving and interpreting international aids to navigation for public education and display ( ).

“It turns out MENAS had quite a number of retired aids to navigation, dating back to between 1914 and the 1950s,” Gronow says. “They said they were on the verge of scrapping the items. I said, ‘Oh no, we’d appreciate the opportunity to go there and see if we’d be interested in recovering some of them.’ ”

Gronow and museum curator Chad Kaiser flew to Bahrain — in the Persian Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Qatar — and were surprised by the lights and lenses the organization had. “It’s rare that someone comes across a stockpile of older lights like what we found,” says Kaiser, who is 29. “The rest of the world started to upgrade to solar-powered beacons in the 1950s or so. These pieces have long been considered obsolete and many have been destroyed.”

Gronow and Kaiser spent three days sifting through old equipment in MENAS storage yards. “We made some amazing discoveries,” Gronow says. “The real prize of the trip was putting together two complete and one partial lighthouse lenses, one of which was a fourth-order group-flashing, rotating clamshell in near-perfect condition. Those are some of the rarest and most beautiful lenses ever created.”

Gronow and Kaiser also recovered 120 acetylene buoy lights (100 200 mm, 10 300 mm and 10 500 mm models), as well as spare parts and lighthouse equipment. It was the museum’s largest single acquisition. With the help of MENAS employees, Gronow and Kaiser loaded the equipment into a 40-foot steel container to be shipped to the United States.

“Packing the container was very difficult,” Kaiser recalls. “I like to be warm and can handle high temperatures, but we were in something like 120-degree conditions on an asphalt parking lot in a steel crate. It was literally like stepping into an oven.”

The men persevered, and made their efforts pay off. Gronow and Kaiser returned to Michigan, and when the container was delivered to the museum the following month they assembled a team to restore the lights and lenses.

“While they were in surprisingly good condition, the items had been neglected for such a long time that we had to purchase commercial-grade restoration equipment,” Gronow says. “We bought media-blasting cabinets, wheel buffers and polishers, and a new spray booth. Since then we’ve been busy disassembling each item, blasting off the paint, sanding, polishing and repainting them. We clear-coat the pieces, replace the broken ones, and put them back together. It takes us about 55 hours to restore one 200 mm light. It’s really been a time-consuming process.”

With many of the lights and lenses restored and on display at the museum, Gronow now is looking to sell a number of the other items to private collectors and/or trade with museums. For example, he says the 200 mm buoy lights measure 3 feet tall and are priced at $3,000. The price tag on the 500 mm lights, which weigh nearly 1,000 pounds and measure 5 feet in height, is $28,000. “Owning one of the 500 mm lights is like having your very own lighthouse light,” he says.

“While we don’t make a lot of money selling these lights, we want to make sure they go into museums and to places where they can be appreciated by other maritime historians and by the public,” says Gronow. “That’s what makes all the cuts and broken knuckles we get from restoring them really worthwhile.”