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Saving Beacons of History

To the Lighthouse

By John P. Thompson

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."

The same goes for lighthouses. Automation, they told me, is far more efficient, and safer as well. But they didn't want to see their town's history disappear, and so they devote their spare time to working on Thacher Island.

Mr. Cameron told me to call John Bennett the next day so that I could finally go out to the island, and he recommended some people that I should talk to. After the initial jabs at Harvard boys, they were all extremely friendly or helpful. Leaving them to their conversation and work on the pier, I went to talk to the people at the LPS.

After what I'd heard on the dock, I felt a little wary of LPS and James W. Hyland III. But Mr. Hyland, whose business is publicity, was much more willing to help than Mr. Cameron had been initially. He put me quickly at ease.

Driving to the society's office, which is a rented space in an old grade school, we talked about what the society is trying to do, and how he had gotten involved. Like Mr. Cameron, Hyland cares about the fate of lighthouses. His interest though, is rooted not in any local ties, but in a more general concern for lighthouses around the nation.

Hyland founded LPS after doing a series of photographs up the New England coast on "the lighthouse trail." Realizing the condition of the lights, and the historic value of the buildings, he decided to devote himself fulltime to their documentation and preservation. The work of LPS is much less hands on than that of the Thacher Island Association, and, however unfair, it is easy to see why the people on the pier might be wary of James W. Hyland III, with his hair parted to the side and his background in film, his publicity campaigns, long-range lobbying and talk-show interviews.

At the office, he gave me the society's pamphlets and a poster, and I talked to Valerie Nelson, who coordinates the funding projects. She is a dynamic woman, vastly well-informed about her work.

Through her efforts, and through the media attention Hyland has been able to gather, a million-dollar Bicentennial Lighthouse Fund has been put into motion. It is the first "bricks-and-mortar" provision for historic sites to be enacted since President Reagan came into office, and it will all be directed to lighthouses.

One of the main difficulties in processing this fund will be determining at what level spending decisions will be made. Most of the control will go to the local communities--Nelson worries that it may be difficult even getting communities to apply for the fund. "We've learned that people are very possesive about their lighthouses; they don't like us coming in as strangers with outside money and ideas," she says.

Thacher Island seems to be a case in point. The society's approach with fundraising ideas didn't pan out, as was clear from the talk I'd heard at the yacht club. Again, though, I thought their reaction was understandable.

One of the society's ideas had been to raise funds through a plaque, to be placed in Thacher's north tower, commemorating Phillip Weld's love of sailing. I couldn't see that a Harvard alum really had a place in the island's history. The money would be helpful, but does this set the stage for putting corporate slogans on keepers' houses?

On the phone, John Bennett agreed to hold the early morning boat till I could arrive, and I made sure this time to bring someone else along. The sky was grey, but, except for a few stipples of rain, the water was calm. Bennett and some friends were standing by the boat reminiscing about early school-days, when English was still a second language, and the Swedes were second-class citizens.

The boat was a snub-nosed skiff whose bow lowered to become a landing bridge. When we got in we had to sign a release for any damage we did ourselves on the "hazardous facilities" on the island. Casting off, we thumped out across the bay, our wake rocking lobster buoys which spread out around us as far as we could see. On the horizon rose up the two towers of the Eyes of Cape Ann; below them, in the early light, the island looked like a smear of mist.

Just offshore from the island, we took on a bearded man who had tied his boat to a buoy so we could land at the one-boat pier. He was there to work on the north tower's brick work; a group of workers were being put up in an "apartment" adjacent to the keeper's house.

At the time Virginia Woolf wrote To the Lighthouse, the building of lighthouses was a technological problem comparable to the space-shuttle program today. For sailors to travel the seas the lighthouses had to be there. Sources of light, methods of reflection, ways of dealing with offshore building conditions, were all popular and important subjects in scientific journals of the time. Even today, getting work materials onto Thacher Island isn't easy.

At the base of the north tower's spiral staircase were piled drills, cables, sand blasters and a variety of other tools. The tower definitely needs the work; the stairs are rusted and the bricks mossy. The caretaker told us that a day's rainstorm lasts for three extra days in the tower, which the repointing work will stop.

In the tower room is the light which the Thacher Island Association was finally able to replace last April, after more than a half a century of darkness. Modern and newly painted, the light emphasized the corrosion of the railings and walkways.

At the old keeper's house we signed the guest book, and the caretaker showed us an antique kerosene lamp, whose brass glowed with loving polish. There are two couples that live there, and they alternate from winter to summer. "It's a wonderful place to live, but you are ready to get off at the end of winter," she told us. They'd just arrived for the season, and she said the island had already welcomed them back with a good storm. She was optimistic about rebuilding the tower. "We'll just keep going 'til the money runs out," she said.

Out here on the island, the story I'd heard about the New Yorker looking for his donation to LPS had blown up into a rumour that LPS was actually under investigation. I asked the society about this, and they told me that with two staff members and infrequent volunteers, they are notoriously slow at response to members, but that they certainly weren't being investigated.

Next year is the bicentennial for American lighthouses, and the Senate has declared August 7 "National Lighthouse Day." LPS will be sponsoring, in conjunction with the Coast Guard, a kick-off celebration at Maine's Portland Head Light. After that, it will be up to local groups to apply and spend the funds. If all goes well, the work of the Lighthouse Preservation Society and the Thacher Island Association, and other local groups, will come together so that, in the words of Senate Resolution 306, "these impressive structures, standing at land's end through two centuries, symbolizing safety, security, heroism, duty and faithfulness" will be preserved. S.J. RES. 306


Desiguating the day of August 7, 1969, as "National Lighthouse Day".


APRIL 28, 1086

Mr. CHAFEE (for himself, Mr. MITCHELL, Mr. PELL, and Mr. REIGLEL introduced the following joint resolution; which was read twice and returned to the Committee on the Judiciary JOINT RESOLUTION

Designating the day of August 7, 1989, as "National Lighthouse Day".

Whereas August, 7, 1989, marks the 200th anniversary of the signing by President Washington of the Lighthouse Act; and Whereas that Act, established a Federal role in the support, maintenance, and repair of al lighthouse, beacon buoys, and public piers necessary for safe navigation; commissioned the Federal lighthouse, and represents the first public work fast Federal lighthouse, and represents the first public works Act in the young country; and Whereas lighthouses played an integral role in the rich maritime history of the United States as that history spread from the Atlantic coast, through the Great Lakes and Gulf coast, to the Pacific states; and

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