Want a lighthouse? Call the Interior Dept.
Aficionados can bid to preserve one of the 301 lighthouses the government is relinquishing control of.
NEWPORT, ORE. — The Yaquina Bay Lighthouse looks out from the Oregon coast, as it has for 131 years. There's probably no truth to the tales that it's "haunted." But it has seen a lot of history over its time: As an aid to ships navigating the rocky coastline for passage to safe harbor, then years of neglect and disrepair, and finally rehabilitation and listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
"There is a mystique to lighthouses, a drama, a history, almost an aura of reverence for their lifesaving function," says Interior Secretary Gale Norton. "People are drawn to them."
So many people, in fact, that Uncle Sam wants to transfer 301 lighthouses around the country to public and private interests for preservation. Most are along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, but some 90 are in Great Lakes states, and Michigan with 46 has the most lighthouses available for acquisition.
The changes are happening under recent federal legislation authorizing the transfer of historic lighthouses and stations at no cost from the US Coast Guard to federal agencies, state and local governments, nonprofit corporations, and community development organizations.
"One of the outstanding features of this law is that it puts nonprofits on an equal footing with government," says Secretary Norton, who represents an administration that promotes government devolution and privatization.
For the most part, these transfers will be to local governments and historical societies. But some lighthouses may become available to individuals with the vision and wherewithal to restore and maintain these maritime icons.
Scott Holman has already had that experience. Three years ago, the US Coast Guard sold him the Granite Island Lighthouse in Lake Superior about 12 miles offshore from Marquette, Mich.
"It was an awful mess," he recalls. "It had a gaping hole in the roof and it had rotted all the way down through three floors to the basement. The plaster was destroyed. It had been untouched since 1939, when they walked out of the place."
The price was $86,000, but that was just the beginning of what has been a thorough (and very expensive) restoration and upgrading. How much has it cost so far?
"I'm not about to talk about how much it costs," demurs Mr. Holman, CEO of a steel-casting company in Bay City, Mich. "We just decided to do it."
Doing it has involved a full renovation of a facility that dates back to just after the Civil War. The fixup paid meticulous attention to historical detail, but included ultramodern additions like solar and wind energy-generation systems, and a high-speed Internet connection (via uplink to a satellite). There are nine "webcams" (one of them operating for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), seven of which can be viewed on the lighthouse's new website (www.graniteisland.com).
Holman knew what he was getting into. While a student at Northern Michigan University in Marquette 40 years ago, he took other divers out to explore shipwrecks and Granite Island. He knew, as did the crews of the 6,000 ships that were wrecked on the Great Lakes over the centuries, that the weather there can be fearsome. This past March, says Holman, Granite Island saw sustained winds of 50 to 90 miles per hour.
"On the other hand, we've been out there for beautiful sunrises, beautiful sunsets the northern lights are just unbelievable from the island," he says. Then there's the history.
"You sit there and realize that from 1868 on, the lighthouse keepers were there getting up in the middle of the night, winding up the bell, lighting the wicks, cleaning the lenses, writing in their log," he says. "You think of the experience and the bravado not only of the people who braved the seas but very often of the lighthouse keepers and rescue stations who rescued those people who were in shipwrecks, risking their own lives."
Holman says he's amazed at the interest his project has generated.
Visitors frequently come out by boat to look around. He's been flooded with e-mails. This weekend, there'll be a wedding on the island.
The Holman family doesn't plan on living on Granite Island, mainly because it's isolated offshore and subject to the vagaries of the weather.
"It's the kind of place you go for a long weekend," he says. "If you're going to stay longer than that you either need to write a book or read 'War and Peace.' "
Growing numbers of onshore lighthouses have been turned into tourist attractions, B&B's, and private residences. But who would want to live in a stolid cylinder with a huge flashlight twirling around on top?
"I wouldn't consider myself a loner, but I do love peace and quiet, also nature and the sea," says Sandra Graham, a retired teacher and librarian from the Pittsburgh area who's been searching the Internet for real estate listings of lighthouses for sale.
"I'd always wanted to be an architect, and I love unusual houses with great views again, a lighthouse," says Ms. Graham, who's distantly related to Viking ship captain Olaf the Black as well as "a famous pirate" but doubts that she "inherited any genes for the sea from them."
Such adventures are out there for lighthouse aficionados.
In Henderson, NY, along the Lake Ontario shoreline, there's the historic 1869 Stony Point lighthouse. Set on an acre with 250 feet of lake frontage, it's available for $249,000.
That's peanuts compared to the 7,500 square-foot Cape Cod-style house on three acres along the Chesapeake Bay in Annapolis, Md., that features a "built-to-scale replica of the famous Thomas Point Lighthouse" that is "Coast Guard-sanctioned." According to the real estate agency representing the seller, it "is offered at an unbelievable mere $2,250,000."