Lighthouse Lovers Rescue Silent Beacons

The movement to preserve maritime history's hallowed sentinels is seeing explosive growth

Lots of soap eased the friction on the huge beams. But it still took nearly a month to slide all 420 tons of the historic Cape Cod Lighthouse in Truro, Mass., back 400 feet from an eroding shoreline last summer.

The Cape Cod Lighthouse rescue is one of the more dramatic examples of the burgeoning "save the lighthouse" movement now under way along American shorelines and the Great Lakes.

"Explosive is the way I describe what's going on," says Jim Walker, owner of Selkirk Lighthouse, built in 1838 on Lake Ontario in New York. "The interest sort of feeds on itself as organizations increase and the issue of how to save the lights becomes more public. It's the end of an era."

Local agencies and nonprofit groups, wanting to preserve a hallowed and romantic part of American maritime history, are taking over what the United States Coast Guard wants to be rid of: many formerly manned lighthouses rendered useless by advancing technology.

In Maine, precedent-setting legislation signed by President Clinton late last year will result in the transfer of 36 lighthouses in the state from the Coast Guard to the care of agencies, local municipalities, or nonprofit groups. The Coast Guard will save thousands of dollars by in turning over care of the lighthouses to local organizations under "The Maine Lights" program.

"The Coast Guard is not in the historic-preservation business," says Peter Ralston, executive vice president of the Island Institute in Rockland, Maine, the organization that led the effort to transfer the lighthouses. "For years the Coast Guard has been grappling with what to do with lighthouses," he says. "Now, with this legislation, they have a model."

Projects in other states include:

* In North Carolina, efforts are under way to move the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse some 2,000 feet away from the shore at a cost of $12 million. The National Park Service has asked for full funding from Congress to relocate the structure built in 1870.

* To move Florida's Cape St. George Lighthouse, built in 1842, and leaning at a 14 degree angle, volunteers are raising $300,000.

* Volunteers working to save Faulkner's Island Lighthouse in Guilford, Conn., have raised almost half of the $4.5 million needed to save a lighthouse that has been flashing since 1802.

The Lighthouse Digest, a monthly magazine with circulation of 15,000, publishes a monthly "doomsday list" of endangered lighthouses. "Local historical societies will send us photographs and information on the lighthouses," says Tim Harrison, the magazine's editor. "The list changes often. For instance, Cedar Point Light in New York was on the list and was unfortunately demolished."

Continuing Coast Guard modernization, such as using radar reflectors, transistorized flashers, position-monitoring systems, or solar-power packages have made manned lighthouses obsolete. Only one manned lighthouse remains in the US today, the Boston Harbor Light, in operation since 1716 and the first lighthouse built in America.

"People love lighthouses," says Mr. Harrison. "They are in beautiful places and there are a lot of stories to go with them. Nothing bad can be said about a lighthouse. Its one purpose was to save lives."

"Although it depends on how you define a lighthouse, there are 633 lighthouses in the US, according to my survey," says Candace Clifford, a consultant to the National Maritime Alliance of the National Park Service. More than 350 are listed in the National Register for Historic Places.

"There's a lot going on with lighthouses," Ms. Clifford says. "PBS is doing a documentary, the number of books on lighthouses is increasing, and there is a big market in lighthouse merchandise. Lighthouse pages on the internet are getting a lot of visitation. People are doing a good job in restoring lighthouses and the word is getting out."

"People in this part of the world feel connected to these places," Mr. Ralston says. "They don't want to hear, 'You can't go on that island. I don't care if your great-grandfather tended the light.'"

While lighthouses may reside in the national consciousness as romantic, fog-horned sentinels, their cost of renovation and upkeep can be steep.

In Maine, where lighthouses are like friends - all differing in size, design, and location - there is wide support for lighthouse preservation.

"People can get nostalgic and dewy-eyed about lighthouses," says Ralston, "but these can be expensive, tough properties taking enormous amounts of time and money. But I am convinced that innovation and collaborative volunteerism here will make all of this work.

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