A Beacon in the Night

"There are no words to express the feelings that induce a sailor to offer fervent prayers when he sees this mark of sympathy expressed by his fellow men. Suddenly he sees that he is no longer alone in the midst of the ocean waves; he sees that people are caring for him with paternal solicitude."
-Lavrentiy Zagoskin, on sighting the lighthouse at Sitka, Alaska in 1839

Waugoshance Lighthouse in the open waters
of Lake Michigan (photo by K. Walters)
[I had a version of this post published in BoatUS Magazine (April/May 2013) as "U.S. and Canadian Lights Dimming", but I prefer this version]

The sun was on the rise to reveal the horizon when we left Beaver Island in the middle of northern Lake Michigan bound for Mackinac Island in Lake Huron. That day's sail covered a stretch of open water from the Beaver Island archipelago into the Straits of Mackinac, an area characterized by shoals and boulders broadly known as Gray's Reef. The navigational chart for the area is full of artful underwater contours and hazards, some of which are marked with lonely lighthouses miles from dry land in the middle of the big lake.  

The most striking of the three openwater lighthouses we skirted was the abandoned Waugoshance Lighthouse. The rusting metal and crumbling concrete body was clearly feeling the neglect. If I were to personify this old sentinel, I'd say it looked sad to have been replaced by the White Shoals lighthouse but still stands proud of its 19th century service life. The light keepers of long ago at Waugoshance have also been replaced, by birds...lots of them and their guano too.

Pemaquid Point Light in Bristol, Maine (photo by K. Walters)
Abandoned lighthouses are becoming commonplace on waterways around the country. In today's society, lighthouses have become an antiquated part of navigation and are increasingly expensive to maintain and operate. This is a sad occurrence for maritime history buffs and those of us who find reward in the ways of traditional seamanship. As the lighthouses slip into disrepair and, in some instances, give way to storms and harsh coastal environments, we're losing cultural and educational value. But there's hope and opportunity!

Hunting Island Lighthouse, South Carolina
(photo by K. Walters)

Fortunately, there are many really passionate and active lighthouse preservation societies around the country working to preserve and restore lighthouses, if not for their traditional navigational purpose then for their cultural and aesthetic value. You too can be a part of keeping lighthouses alive. Check out these really cool opportunities:

  • Wouldn't it be great to spend a night in a lighthouse? You'd have ample time to explore the property, learn the history of the facility, and experience both daylight and nighttime happenings. Check the United States Lighthouse Society's U.S. Lighthouse Accommodations page to find your ideal overnight stay.
  • Ever wondered what it's like to be a light keeper? Are you up for more than just an overnight stay? Many of the government-owned lighthouses operated by the National Park Service accept volunteer light keepers for varying lengths of time. Volunteering for a season as a light keeper is on my personal "to do" list. I think it would be awesome to learn the history of light keeping by actually doing it. For a listing of opportunities by state, check the National Park Services's Maritime Heritage Program.
  • Looking for the ultimate lighthouse experience? The National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000 provides a mechanism for the disposal of federally-owned historic lighthouses. In most cases, this means that lighthouse ownership is transferred at no cost to federal agencies, state and local governments, nonprofit corporations, educational agencies, and community development organizations. If no eligible and suitable steward is identified, the NHLPA authorizes the federal government to conduct a public sale of the lighthouse. This of course means that there are chances for you to purchase a lighthouse and convert it to your home or "cottage"! How cool is that?  You could live a life like no other, often in some really spectacular seaside (or even open water!) locations. Some lighthouses have been purchased for very reasonable prices through this process, but you should be aware that the new owners are required to keep the lighthouse's historical structure and appearance intact and maintained to a set standard. Still, this is a really unique opportunity to live out a dream by the sea for the right person. Check here for more information about the program and to see available lighthouses. 
Muskegon Pier Light, Muskegon, Michigan (photo by K. Walters)


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