Restoring America’s Beacons

Americana, On the Road, Traditions
on November 12, 2000
rose island
Rose Island Lighthouse

Something majestic and wonderful is reaching deep into the hearts of a growing number of waterside communities across the country; something breathing of nostalgic sentiment, smelling of invigorating sea breeze, and ringing like the knell of a lonesome bell buoy: the American lighthouse.

Creative preservation efforts coupled with environmental awareness and education, like the Keepers of the Week program at Rhode Island’s Rose Island Lighthouse, are paving the way for more community involvement in the maintenance of these venerable relics from another era that dot our land’s end and inland waterways.

Rose Island’s unique agenda features the opportunity for people to spend a week serving as hands-on lighthouse keepers. They pay $1,200 for the privilege. And everyone must believe it is money well spent, because there’s a daunting two-year waiting list. But like avid shoppers eyeing a blue-light special, long lines fail to discourage the true lighthouse aficionado.

“It’s so enriching,” says Elaine Miranda of Vernon, N.J., who along with her husband, John, and their daughter, Emily, recently “kept” the Rose Island Light. “It’s getting to role-play the kind of person I would most admire in the most beautiful environment you can possibly imagine. You really take it seriously for the short time that you’re here. It’s thrilling.”

But it wasn’t all that long ago that the Rose Island Light was nothing more than a scrap heap of fallen plaster, rusted iron, and rotting timber. Put in service in 1869, the light was retired by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1971. Vandalism and neglect took its toll, along with an incessant beating from the elements. To its rescue, in 1984, came the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation, now spearheaded by tireless executive director Charlotte Johnson — the brains, dedicated soldier, and main impetus behind Rose Island’s restoration and preservation.

“It’s not just restoring a building,” claims Johnson. “It’s restoring a way of life.”

Part and parcel of being a Rose Island keeper is managing an imposing array of ecologically beneficial measures that ensure the island’s pristine way of life. There is no hard electricity, no flipping on wall switches, no refrigerator, no stove, no running water. Guests are instructed to bring what they need, with the emphasis always on conservation. “Pack it in, pack it out,” as Johnson says.

Water is pumped by hand from a huge cistern in the basement that catches rain runoff. The available electricity is generated by a windmill and is converted for use in a small but intricate power station that records the use/storage of wattage during any given day. It’s up to the keepers to regulate that flow and to conserve as much energy as possible for unscheduled events arising from the fickleness of New England weather. Most importantly, there must always be enough energy stored to run the light in the tower, which still serves as a navigational aid on Narragansett Bay. Unlike their predecessors of old, however, today’s surrogate lighthouse keepers have a lighter load. There’s no brass to polish, no lantern wicks to trim, no all-night shifts in the tower.

“We’re responsible,” notes John, “for cutting the grass, record-keeping, checking the weather, the water — that’s very important — checking the electricity input and output, and a lot of housekeeping.”

“We’re really vacationing,” adds Elaine. “This is nothing compared to what the old keepers went through. It’s just a glimpse, a little eye-opener. It makes you sit and dream and imagine about the past.”

The hugely popular keepers’ program virtually assures the ongoing preservation of Rose Island. Single overnight stays in the lighthouse museum’s two guest bedrooms are also available and nearly as high in demand.

St. Helena Island Light

On northern Lake Michigan, the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association — a relentlessly devoted maritime organization — is involved in an award-winning restoration project: the St. Helena Island Light, located six-and-a-half miles west of the Mackinaw Island Bridge.

“It’s an exciting story,” says Dick Moehl, president of the association. “Since 1986, we’ve been restoring a formerly derelict light through the volunteer efforts of the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, church groups, and educators, among others. When we took it over, the roof was gone, the windows and the doors and the floors were all basically gone. We’ve won a number of national, regional, and state awards for the project. Now people pay us $100 for an overnight to work!

“Up here, our season (without lake ice) runs from May to mid-September. We utilize the off-season for preparatory work, so when we hit the beach the following year, we’re in full swing. There’s an absolute fascination for the total experience of getting out there in a boat, pumping the water — going through all the stuff that was like it was a hundred years ago.”

Besides the genuine satisfaction derived from helping rescue an endangered artifact, Scouts earn points toward merit badges for their lighthouse labor.

“I guess (the Boy Scouts) have won 10?11?12 Eagle Scout awards out there,” says Moehl, “and there’s been a couple of Gold Awards for the Girl Scouts. If you want a positive story about lighthouse preservation and restoration, using young people and the synergism involved, it’s St. Helena.”

Tybee Island, Ga.

Down on the sandy marshes of the South Atlantic coastline, the Tybee Island Lighthouse, a fixture more than two centuries old near Savannah, Ga., is one of only 26 lighthouses in the country with all its original buildings (seven). Unique fund-raising efforts, like the annual October “Tybee Days,” enable the Tybee Island Historical Society, headed by Cullen Chambers, to procure vital dollars for restoration projects like the head keeper’s cottage, now in progress.

“At Tybee Days,” says Chambers, “we’ve had historical re-enactors from Native American times through World War II come in, in addition to live performances from local music bands. Concerts and events are one of many approaches that small groups can utilize to develop funds for the project.”

Tybee Island’s 154-foot tower, known for its resonant musical tones before it was restored (an oddity triggered by wind patterns blowing through tower windows left open to varying degrees), was re-lighted last February. Unfortunately, the tower no longer sings.

“When we took out the circa-1970 windows,” laments Chambers, “and put back in the bronze six-over-six windows, it alternated the wind pattern, and it no longer produces that harmonic tone that it once did. It was really an incredible sensation and I miss it sorely, but that’s a small trade-off for the historical authenticity and aesthetic beauty of the restored windows.”

Isle au Haut, Maine

In Maine’s Acadia National Park, located offshore near Stonington, Isle au Haut Lighthouse lies on the water’s edge in front of forestland. The light was one of seven Maine lighthouses auctioned off by the government in 1935 as a cost-saving measure during the Great Depression. Purchased by a family who left it vacant for three generations, current owners Jeff and Judi Burke bought the original keeper’s dwelling and the surrounding land in 1986, while the U.S. Coast Guard retained the actual light itself until just two years ago.

“We turned it into a full-service inn immediately,” says Jeff.

The Keeper’s House provides three meals a day, picnic lunches on request, and bicycles, among other amenities, for their guests — most of whom stay several days. Besides Judi’s culinary skills, the Burkes employ two other chefs. A typical evening’s menu might include a hot crab hors d’oeuvre, fresh-made lentil soup with lime, organic garden salad, and fresh-baked Cuban bread served before a main course of grilled seafood shish kebab consisting of shrimp, swordfish, and fresh veggies (a vegetarian menu exists as well). Chocolate cake and a peach-apricot crisp top it off.

“You come out on a mail boat to an island,” notes Jeff. “It drops you off at our boat landing, right there at the lighthouse. Even the absence of electricity is one of the reasons why people want to escape to a place like Isle au Haut. It’s an experience that people can’t find anywhere else.”

Aside from the multitude of wonders that invariably come to anyone visiting or staying at a lighthouse, all four of the guiding spirits behind the lights presented in this account accent their restorative/preservationist efforts with environmental concern. That bodes well for future lighthouse lovers, who currently may be too young to identify the uncommon spell that lighthouses cast over their followers.

“If there’s anything that’s rewarding these days,” adds Jeff, “it’s to feel like you can make a difference.”