Saving Beacons of History

To the Lighthouse

Imagine knowing that the Mississippi River had been dammed and drained into dusty extinction. Or that every wolf, every eagle, every grizzly had been captured, muzzled and put in a circus. That the ices of the Arctic Circle were purple and irridescent with tanker refuse. Or that every lighthouse was nothing more than an overgrown lightbulb, blinking over debris-strewn shores and abandoned buildings.

The Lighthouse Preservation Society (LPS) runs ads in The Boston Phoenix, with the words "It's history. It's art. It's culture. It's dying" next to a graphic of an island lighthouse. I called the society's Rockport number last week to ask if there was a nearby lighthouse community I could visit. James W. Hyland III, the founder of LPS, told me that Ned Cameron, of the Thacher Island Association, ran a ferry leaving the Rockport wharf every Saturday at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., to take visitors out to the island to see their restoration project.

Rockport is a wealthy little town, with a thick stretch of boutiques and pedestrian walks; from the train-yard to the tourist promenade, Coke machine prices jump 25 percent. I asked about the ferry at the Sandy Bay Yacht Club--Mr. Cameron would be coming back from the island about one but wasn't sure if he was going to make another trip out.

When he arrived at the wharf, a lanky, gray-haired man with weatherbeaten hands, and saw that only one person wanted to go, he was even less keen. I got a scolding for not arriving at 9 a.m., for not bringing a group, and for not appreciating what an expense of time and money it was to take out the boat.

Explaining that there was no early morning train from Boston, and that I wanted to publicize his project through an article didn't help. He shouted to a friend, "Hey, should I take this kid from Harvard out to the island?"

"He's from Harvard? I'm sure he could just walk out there." They mellowed, though, as I started asking them questions about the lighthouse.

Every day last year, at dusk and in the morning, I watched, from a kitchen window in Scotland, the flash of the May Isle Lighthouse, eight miles out in the North Sea. On that island there are still keepers, but most lighthouse have now been automated. The buildings that the keepers and their families used to live in, when they haven't been destroyed outright, are mostly left empty, unprotected from vandals, storms and decay.

A provision for lighthouses was the first public works act of our first Congress, signed by Washington in 1789. In 1939 official authority over the lighthouses was given to the Coast Guard, though its unofficial links go back to 1790 when the Coast Guard cutter service was established. Now, with budget cuts and efficiency pushing automation to its completion, the Coast Guard has no money or men to devote to restoring or preserving old buildings and towers; most of its energies and funds are being directed into the drug war.

So who will save the lighthouses? It would seem, without meddling too much with puns, that it's up to George Bush's "thousand points of light." The relationship between the Lighthouse Preservation Society and the Thacher Island Association, both based in Rockport, Mass., shows, however, that focusing even two points of light can be extremely difficult.

Mr. Cameron was born, and grew up, in Rockport and is attached to the island's history. Thacher was the first landfall off Cape Ann for ships coming from England to Boston; there are two lighthouse towers on the island, built in 1861, and they were called the Cape's Eyes.

One of the Eyes was put out in 1932, when the north light was shut off. The south light was manned until 1980; it's still lit, though by electronic remote control. Ned Cameron didn't like to see the keepers' buildings empty and the north tower disintegrating, and thus, the Thacher Island Association. The houses have been restored and are now occupied year round by volunteers.

The Lighthouse Preservation Society had directed me to the Thacher Island people, so I assumed that they must be working together. But when I asked what role the LPS had with the island, I got a negative reaction. No one on the dock seemed to care for the LPS.

"A lot of talk, and no action," said one man. Mistrust was the general feeling: "There's just two of them; they've got no income, they just get donations." Someone else had met a man from New York who'd been there trying to track down some money he'd sent up; "said he was going to go to the postal authorities if he didn't find out what had happened to it."

I sat with them on the pier for a while listening to them talk. They were rearranging the yacht club deck and discussing a sad wedding that they'd been to that day. The bride's father, a lobster man, had died recently. "They found his boat, but no one on it," one said.

"I knew him; he would've been bullshit if they didn't hold the wedding. Life goes on, that was his philosophy."