LIGHTHOUSES: An endangered species

MAINE'S coastline must have been drawn by a shaky hand. It is composed of hundreds of coves and inlets and thousands of islands -- so many that even the state's geological bureau has given up trying to count them. This jagged coastline, with its deep harbors and bountiful sea life, fostered prosperous shipping and fishing industries in times past. But it also posed a rigorous challenge to mariners, who had to maneuver around its treacherous rocks. To avert shipwrecks, the federal government legislated the construction of 60-some lighthouses along Maine's coast, more than 40 of them on islands. Standing at the very edge of civilization, these lighthouses and the keepers who tended them were scarcely more sheltered from the ocean's fury than the ships they helped guide. Many were the tales of seafarers saved by the vigilance of a lightkeeper -- and many, too, were the tales of storms sweeping over a little lighthouse island, of keepers running to the towers for safety, and of waves washing clear over the tower, extinguishing the light.

In the United States, the partnership between lighthouse and keeper is on the verge of extinction. The light still remains -- technology has yet to find a replacement for a towering beam to illuminate the waters -- but no human being is needed to watch over it. Since the 1930s, photoelectric cells have gradually usurped the task of triggering a signal to switch on the light at the day's end. But until 10 years ago, there was no mechanism that could note the rising of the fog. Now, light receivers can sense the fog as far as three miles out to sea, activating the foghorn and eliminating all need for a human keeper. Endangered property

The disappearance of human activity in the lighthouse worries some people -- enough to lure some 200 lighthouse-lovers, from as far away as San Francisco and Florida, to a recent Lighthouse Conference here in Rockport. The conference was sponsored by the Maine Citizens for Historic Preservation and cosponsored by the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. Although there was much discussion on the love and lore of lighthouses, the real concern was preservation.

The lighthouse towers themselves are not in danger, since the United States Coast Guard is still responsible for them. But without a keeper there is no longer a need for most of the adjacent buildings -- the keeper's house, boathouse, oil house, barn, and other structures. In the past, the automating of the lighthouse often meant the demolition of these buildings, de stroying the integrity of the lighthouse complex. Public opinion has halted this practice. The Coast Guard now recognizes the value of these structures and has begun to work closely with local preservation societies to sell or lease them to responsible caretakers. Yet, until a solution can be found, they must ``site harden'' the unused buildings against the forces of weather.

The issue is not simple. A listing with the National Register of Historic Places can require site protection, but it doesn't pay for it. And restoration and upkeep are expensive. One current funding technique is to sell the buildings under an easement plan. This can give a preservation society control over the appearance and use of the property, while requiring the new owners to cover the maintenance costs. But William Swartzbaugh, director of the Lighthouse Preservation Society, warns, ``Just as people without a purpose fail, lighthouse property without a use is not going to last.'' A family, a garden, and a cow

Lighthouse life was an isolated one, with only one's family and the glory of nature for company. Some of the islands were wooded, with a bit of dirt for a garden and enough grass to keep a cow. Others were nothing more than a granite slab. Still, at each tower lived a keeper whose life was dedicated to maintaining the light in all weather. Before electricity, oil kept the light going -- whale, colza, porpoise, or mineral oil. The thick glass prism lens that refracted and magnified the light had to be constantly cleaned, because of soot from the burning oil. And twice each night, the keeper had to wind the weights that rotated the beam; each light was set up to flash distinct patterns, called ``character istics,'' which distinguished it from neighboring ones.

Alone on their islands, lighthouse families grew strong and sizable. Milton Corbitt knew that well. He grew up at the Little River lighthouse, east of Machias, along with his seven brothers and sisters. His father, Willy Corbitt, was keeper there for more than 20 years. Milton's grand- father was a keeper on Libby Island, just north of there.

``If you couldn't be best pals with your brothers and sisters,'' Milton recalls, ``you'd better forget it.''

Some say that lighthouse families were large because it took several people to carry out the tasks that the self-sufficient remote life imposed. Extra hands were needed to paint the lighthouse tower and stairs, watch the light when the keeper was away on a supply trip, help with the garden, or row a boatload of hay across from the mainland to feed the cow.

Others joke that lighthouse women enjoyed bearing children, because it brought them a rare treat -- an extended visit off-island during the births. Regulations were strict in the Lighthouse Service, and similarly so in the Coast Guard, which took over the Lighthouse Service in 1939. Men could row off-island daily, if the mainland was close enough. But as recently as 1968, the Coast Guard ruled that women were allowed off-island only in a Coast Guard vessel, and that came around but once every two weeks.

Betsy Norton, wife of keeper Tom Norton of the Burnt Island lighthouse, just outside Boothbay Harbor, remembers that she accepted this regulation her first year, watching her husband venture ashore daily for the mail, knowing that while she was left to tend the light, he would have an hour to chat with friends on the mainland.

The next year, she says, she bought her own boat. New uses

It is these memories, and the sites that inspired them, that lovers of lighthouses seek to preserve. But what use is there for a building on an island battered by storms and the salty sea, reachable only by boat, with no water, septic system, or electricity?

A variety of solutions came forth at the conference here. A California island lighthouse, reachable only by boat, has recently become a favorite bed and breakfast. Other lighthouse structures, including Maine's Grindel Point Light on Islesboro, and Pemaquid Point Light, are museums of lighthouse life, maritime lore, or local history. Mt. Desert Rock has been maintained and used by Allied Whale, a research project under the auspices of College of the Atlantic. Matinicus Rock is a field station for the Audubon Society's Puffin Project. Eventually, a shelter for stranded mariners will be built there. Others, like Bass Harbor Head Light, Burnt Island, and Cape Henry, are Coast Guard dorms or homes, while still others have become choice vacation spots for the Coast Guard brass, reserved a year in advance.

Mr. Swartzbaugh suggested some other ideas, focusing on reuse strategies that might generate enough income to cover the maintenance of the buildings, and possibly even their restoration. He says alternative uses that provide public benefit range from ``a protective wildlife refuge to a mixed-use recreational area that might encompass a campsite for the Sea Scouts, a reception center for whale-watchers, or windjammer cruises.'' Sites that lend themselves to outdoor gatherings could feature art shows, open concerts, and conferences. `Lover's light'

The lighthouse tower remains a romantic symbol in the public's heart.

In the late 1960s, when the Coast Guard sought to simplify the identifying characteristics of lighthouses, the Guard cast a critical eye over Minots Ledge, the light that stands at the entrance to Boston Harbor. It had a rather complicated characteristic, flashing once, then four times, then three times. But when the Coast Guard officials announced a plan to simplify the pattern, they were inundated with complaints. The Coast Guard had tampered with romance: Minots Ledge light was known as ``lover's light,'' flashing once for ``I,'' four times for ``L-O-V-E,'' and three for ``Y-O-U.'' The Coast Guard restored the old pattern.

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