Keeping the Lights On
How the Maine Lights Program saved dozens of lighthouses and became a beacon for national preservation efforts
In the summer of 1982, I was a passenger on a small sailboat that gave wide berth to the foggy, rock-strewn stretch of Moosabec Reach between Jonesport and Beals Island and navigated around the bold southern shores of Great Wass Island before tucking up into a well-protected harbor at Mistake Island. When we walked up over the hill from the anchorage, we were stunned to see a large hole in the ground, where an elegant, double-gabled, gambrel-roofed lighthouse keeper’s house had stood since 1903.
When we sailed into Jonesport the following day, we learned that a team of military frogmen had received permission from the State Historic Preservation Office to swim ashore under the cover of darkness and blow the keeper’s house up as a training exercise. This misbegotten mission on the aptly named Mistake Island was a fiasco; it broke panes in the lighthouse tower’s lantern and was bitterly resented in town, especially by fishermen.
This incident illuminated the threat that all of Maine’s lighthouses faced as 64 lighthouses along the state’s coastline were in the process of being automated. The elegant Fresnel lenses that project concentrated beams of light far out to sea to help mariners navigate were being replaced by automated beacons, the kind used at airports. Fog bells were obsolete. Lighthouse keepers were no longer required to tend the lights, which were usually in lonely locations, and all ancillary structures, including the keepers’ houses and some lighthouse towers, would likely be demolished. In stark bureaucratic language, these icons of Maine’s maritime heritage had been declared “excess to Coast Guard needs.”
The following year, after Peter Ralston and I founded the Island Institute, he began to research how local citizens might apply to the U.S. Coast Guard to acquire and maintain Maine’s iconic lighthouse structures. The intricate process, however, was so daunting that no one even tried until a fire badly damaged the 1857 keeper’s house at Heron Neck Light on Greens Island, near Vinalhaven, in April 1989. After the Heron Neck fire, Ralston got many phone calls from Vinalhaven residents who were distressed by news that the Coast Guard intended to tear down the damaged structure. One of the callers was very emotional, saying, “That lighthouse saved two people in my family,” and asked what the Island Institute could do. Thinking out loud, Ralston said that he would try to find someone who would restore this historic structure in exchange for owning it.
With the demolition squad waiting in the wings, he asked Bob Elliot, a well-known feature reporter for WCSH-TV in Portland, to describe the urgency of the situation, and Elliott signed on. His story was broadcast with a compelling teaser: own a Maine lighthouse for free. Ralston followed up with a call to a producer at NBC’s Today Show, which broadcasted the story nationally.
A pair of Massachusetts men, Charles Whitten, a real estate developer, and Steve Murphy, a doctor, who had seen the television coverage said they were interested in taking on the Heron Neck project. Because they had already successfully restored the historically significant lifesaving station on Damariscove Island off Boothbay Harbor, Ralston knew he had a workable solution to present to the U.S. Coast Guard. The only catch, he soon learned, was that it would take an act of Congress to authorize the transfer of federal property. However, following a personal intervention by Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, and having received a great deal of Ralston’s attention for four years, Congress passed the legislation in 1993.
After the legislative victory and transfer, Ralston called Ted Dernago, who headed real property management for the U.S.C.G. First District. They had worked closely with each other on the Heron Neck project and had become friends.
“So, if you ever have more Maine lighthouses to transfer, let me know,” Ralston joked to Dernago.
“How many do you want?” replied Dernago, also kidding.
“How many have you got?” asked Ralston.
“Two or three dozen,” said Dernago, chuckling.
That’s when a light bulb went off in Ralston’s head.
“Ted, why don’t we draft a piece of legislation that would effect a mass transfer of Maine’s lighthouses?”
“You are out of your mind,” Dernago replied, suddenly realizing that Ralston was serious.
Ralston began pitching the idea of a mass transfer idea to Dernago. There were plenty of people and groups who wanted to help maintain Maine’s lighthouses, Ralston insisted.
Finding local partners to maintain the properties would be good public relations for the Coast Guard, while the alternative of demolishing the historically significant structures would create untold ill will. Finally, the Coast Guard, which was struggling with ongoing budget cuts, would save money. “That’s what turned the tide,” Ralston recalls. “Within 45 minutes, I had my first convert.” Dernago said it might just work, and agreed to help shape a legislative proposal that he could take up the Coast Guard chain of command.
The reality of maintaining beautiful but vulnerable structures in exposed locations in close proximity to saltwater was daunting. Unbeknownst to Ralston, the Coast Guard had already planned to dispose of seven other Maine lighthouse properties to save money, and was beginning to be concerned about the potential for bad publicity. The Island Institute had researched the status of all the lighthouses in Maine, and Ralston told Dernago that he had a pretty good handle on who the likely recipients of the lighthouse transfers would be. They pressed forward, and by 1994 the Institute and the Coast Guard had worked out a process for the expedited transfer of eligible Maine lighthouses to other agencies and groups in exchange for maintaining the structures and providing public access to the transferred properties.
The legislation to create the Maine Lights Program, which Congress passed in 1996, identified 36 Maine lighthouse properties as candidates for transfer. To fund the program, artist Jamie Wyeth donated a limited edition of 300 signed prints of Iris at Sea, one of his paintings of Southern Island Light. Sales of the prints paid for all the detailed title searches, legal agreements, and other work required for the transfers. Retired U.S.C.G. Rear Admiral Richard Rybacki of Falmouth presided over the selection process. Ultimately, 27 lighthouse properties were transferred through the Maine Lights Program to government agencies, local towns, and private nonprofits.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages a major system of seabird nesting islands as part of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge, added the remote island of Matinicus Rock with its light station to its refuge system due to its importance to nesting puffins and razorbill auks. The city of Rockland acquired Rockland Breakwater Light, although city councilors made clear that funds for its renovation would have to be raised privately. The town of Vinalhaven acquired Browns Head Light to use as a residence for its town manager. On Isle au Haut, the owners of the light keeper’s house, Jeff and Judi Burke, who had converted the house on Isle au Haut to a bed-and-breakfast, helped restore the stone lighthouse tower in 1999 after the tower had been transferred to the town. In Port Clyde, the St. George Historical Society had restored the keeper’s house and established the Marshall Point Lighthouse Museum there in 1986 before the property, made famous in a scene from Forrest Gump, was transferred under the Maine Lights Program to the town of St. George.
Two years after the completion of the property transfers, Congress passed the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act. The act, modeled on the Maine Lights Program, established a national process for transferring any historic federal properties across the country to government agencies and private nonprofit groups. Bob Trapani, who heads the American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF), says, “The Maine Lights Program showed Congress and the country that transferring these historic properties could work, and work well.”
ALF set its sights on several lighthouse properties that were left unclaimed at the end of the Maine Lights Program in 1998, including Little River Light on a small island off Cutler. The lighthouse had been automated in 1975 with a modern light erected on a nearby steel skeleton tower that, although functional, was neither historic nor attractive. In 2001 the original cast-iron light tower was leased to ALF, which restored it. A revolving beacon was installed in the original tower and “relit” after 26 years of darkness on October 2, 2001, during a ceremony attended by over 1,000 people. People can now stay over-night in the restored keeper’s house through a program run by ALF and the Friends of Little River Light. The program is so popular that it’s providing funds to put back into the site. “It’s making money,” says Trapani, “and more money every year.”
With much of its focus on Maine’s remote lighthouses, ALF moved its headquarters from Wells to Rockland in 2007. In recent years, Trapani has worked with local partners to raise funds to renovate the Rockland Breakwater Light, which he calls “a one-of-a-kind lighthouse that defines Rockland as a seaside town.” Along with the Friends of Rockland Breakwater Light, local citizens and lighthouse lovers have raised over $275,000 to restore this structure.
Trapani notes that Maine’s lighthouses, with all their challenges, attract people from all over the world. “They are places of solitude. The quiet is amazing,” he says. “They are places where you make life-changing decisions.” Trapani says that the Maine Lights Program, initiated by Peter Ralston during a phone call with an imaginative Coast Guard civilian, “showed organizations around the country that a model program could work, that private owners could help save the nation’s lighthouse heritage, and that we can get communities behind the program. The Maine Lights Program was like a beacon of light that pointed the way.”