Lighthouses for Sale
The federal government is looking for someone to assume ownership of three remote beacons in Maine.
It’s been a dozen years since the federal government began divesting itself of lighthouses around the country, including several in Maine, but that hasn’t quelled the public excitement that ensues whenever a new tower becomes available. This summer, interest in these architecturally beautiful antiques is higher still as the fates of three remote Maine lighthouses are being played out.
Two of these towers — Boon Island Light Station off York and Halfway Rock Light Station off Harpswell — became available this spring, when the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) offered them to government or nonprofit agencies, the first step in the government’s protocol for lighthouse divestiture. Finding a steward willing to preserve the historical integrity of these lighthouses will be no simple matter as illustrated by the divestiture path of the third lighthouse, Moose Peak Light off Jonesport. When the GSA tried to give away the 161-year-old lighthouse on Mistake Island last year, only a group of local residents, calling themselves Keepers of Moose Peak Light, applied for ownership. After months of back-and-forth between the group and the National Park Service, the application was rejected because the Keepers had not yet raised any money. Now Moose Peak is on the auction block, a process that makes it available to any individual with sufficient funds to acquire it.
“That was sad because you want the locals to take part in these treasures that are part of their communities, and obviously Moose Peak meant something to a number of people in Jonesport,” says Bob Trapani of the American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF), a Rockland-based organization dedicated to preserving light stations. “It’s part of the maritime fabric of Down East Maine. To see it go to auction doesn’t promise that it will be restored. It just means that someone with the financial wherewithal can take it off the government’s hands. I’m not saying that a private individual won’t perform the work the tower needs — it could be wonderful — but it’s an unknown.” (Two years ago Jeffrey Florman, a Maine Medical Center neurosurgeon, made the winning bid of $190,000 for Ram Island Ledge Light in Portland Harbor, saying he wanted to preserve it.)
ALF, whose chapters steward twenty-two lighthouses around the country, including Little River Light in Cutler and Rockland Breakwater Light, is interested in applying for ownership of both the Boon Island and Halfway Rock light stations, says Trapani, who expects board members will spend part of August researching funding options.
Both lighthouses have special significance in Maine. Boon Island is notorious as the site of a 1710 shipwreck, whose surviving crew resorted to cannibalism during the twenty-four bitterly cold days they awaited rescue. The 123-foot lighthouse, built in 1812, is the tallest on Maine’s coast. Halfway Rock Light Station sits on a ledge halfway between Cape Elizabeth and Cape Small. A few years ago, Maine Preservation, a nonprofit historic preservation organization, placed the 141-year-old lighthouse on its most endangered properties list, noting that the remote location will make restoration “inordinately expensive” — a factor recently cited by both the town of Harpswell and the Harpswell Historical Society when they passed on the GSA’s invitation to apply for ownership.
“These towers have suffered years of neglect,” Trapnai says. “The federal government hasn’t had much interest in them for years due to budget cuts. Maintaining them isn’t always justified from a bookkeeper’s perspective; we’d say it is very justified. We want to see that these towers are given a chance to move into the future. We don’t want to lose them.” —Virginia M. Wright
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