New lighthouse owners signal a ray of hope

Coast Guard turns to small towns, state parks and preservation groups to keep the historic structures from crumbling.

By Traci Watson, USA TODAY

The historic lighthouses of America are up for grabs at an irresistible price: free.

The Coast Guard, owner of many of the graceful old towers, cannot afford to maintain many of its 300 historic lighthouses so it is quietly getting rid of dozens of them that guard shores from Maine to California.

Ownership is being passed to small towns, state parks and private preservation groups among others, at no charge but under tough restrictions. A few "lights," as fans call them, are so remote and dilapidated that no group will take them, not even for free. These are being sold to the highest bidder.

"We're not in the business of stewardship of historical properties," the Coast Guard's Lt. Commander Keith Turro says. "Other groups are. It's not in the best interest of the public to hold onto these properties."

Some new owners are converting the lighthouses and surrounding buildings into bed-and-breakfast inns or museums.

The government prefers applicants with decent bankrolls and fastidious preservation plans. Another string often attached is a requirement that the new owner provide public access to the lighthouse.

Taking possession of the lighthouses from the government can be a long, bureaucratic process, which has prompted many applicants to turn to Congress to gain the title under special legislation.

Lighthouse enthusiasts agree that the Coast Guard's effort to reduce its stock will benefit most of the old structures, but they worry that some of the structures will suffer if they fall into the hands of groups that run out of dedication or funding.

How should lighthouse lovers feel about this turn of events? "Joyous," says Wayne Wheeler of the United States Lighthouse Society. "Getting (them) into the hands of responsible non-profit organizations is the best thing possible."

Wheeler and other advocates say that some lights will probably never be sold and will continue to decay.

America's historic lighthouses are anachronisms, like the steamships and schooners they once guided.

Over the past 35 years, the Coast Guard has installed solar panels, batteries and other modern gizmos into old lighthouses to run automated lights and bells so there no longer is a need for lighthouse keepers.

As keepers moved out, vandals sometimes moved in, breaking windows and scrawling graffiti. And the picturesque sites that make lighthouses so attractive also expose them to wind and water, which hasten decay.

"It takes a lot of labor and love to maintain them. The resources the Coast Guard has available aren't enough," says Capt. Patrick Layne, chief of civil engineering for the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard has been whittling its inventory of lighthouses for decades, but lighthouses have been flying off the shelves recently, in part because there's more interest in the old buildings.

Despite the rules and bureaucracy, many people have been eager to take on a lighthouse the Coast Guard can no longer use. Recently adopted historic lighthouses include:

Doubling Point Light near Rockland, Maine. This lighthouse's foundation was crumbling when it was acquired in 1998 by the Friends of the Doubling Point Light, a preservation group set up by concerned neighbors. For $50,000, the group had the lighthouse, built in 1898, lifted and moved so the base could be rebuilt.

"It probably would've stood for several years before it fell, but it was in danger," says Jim Spencer, president of the Friends group. "And now it's not."

Granite Island Light Station near Marquette, Mich. The station sits on an island that's about a 30-minute ride from shore over the choppy waters of Lake Superior.

Even so, the station sold for $86,300 in February to Scott and Martine Holman, who beat out 30-plus bidders at auction and have spent substantial sums on patching the roof and other fixes.

"It's unique. And it's part of Great Lakes shipping history," says Scott Holman, explaining why he's spending a small fortune on a crumbing lighthouse. "When Martine and I are done with it, it should last at least another 100 years."

The Hudson City Lighthouse near Hudson, N.Y. The Hudson-Athens Lighthouse Preservation Society took possession of this 1874 light last summer, thanks to a transfer approved by Congress.

The society had operated the light for 16 years under a lease with the Coast Guard. "Now it's ours," says the group's historian, Mike Oliviere. "No one can come and take it away from us."

The group plans to add a heating system so furniture and other artifacts from the light's heyday can return to their rightful place.

Nevertheless, lighthouse advocates wonder whether non-profit groups will still be alive and tending their lighthouses 50 years from now. "Some of the groups that have shown interest have disappeared overnight," says Eric Scherer, the federal government's overseer for the Hudson River in New York.

Many lighthouse activists cite Squirrel Point Light, also near Rockland, as a cautionary tale.

Congressional action transferred the light from the Coast Guard to a small non-profit group in 1998. Later, the group's director "called us up and asked if we'd like to sell it for him for half a million dollars," says Robert Whitney, a Maine real estate broker.

The group's director, Mike Trenholm, says that the real-estate firm called him and that he never offered to sell the lighthouse.

Still, most new lighthouse owners echo Spencer's sentiments about taking possession of a lighthouse, a feeling that seems to be more akin to having a child than to acquiring a new beach house.

"It's one of the things in my life that I'm most happy to have been a part of," Spencer says of Doubling Point Light in Maine. "Lighthouses are symbols of safety and protection, and they must be preserved."

This article is courtesy of USA Today.