Mr. Lighthouse

Trapani at Owls Head Light.

Trapani at Owls Head Light. Photograph by Doug Van Kampen

Bob Trapani Jr. carries the torch for Maine’s beloved-but-antiquated seaside beacons in the GPS era.



Late one afternoon in the old keeper’s house at Owls Head Light, with billows of fog drifting in and the Vinalhaven ferry sounding its horn offshore, Bob Trapani Jr. sits upstairs in his office, his desktop decorated with replica navigational buoys and a model lighthouse. “I love
the coast, I love the weather, and of course, I love lighthouses,” says Trapani, director of the American Lighthouse Foundation. “And these lighthouses are surrounded by such unprecedented beauty.” He gestures out the window to where a trail winds down to a pebbly beach and windjammers cruise past. “Just look at this place.”

Twenty years ago, Trapani was working near Philadelphia for Waste Management, handling large-account sales for the goliath trash disposal company. Putting in one long week after another, he wanted out. Just off a beach where his family vacationed in Delaware, he’d long noticed a striking but derelict lighthouse, so in 1998, he quit his job and started a nonprofit to fix it up. Seven years later, Trapani parlayed his newfound lighthouse know-how into his current job at the Owls Head–based American Lighthouse Foundation.

The foundation runs historical conservation and visitor programming at 10 Maine lighthouses, and Trapani has visited all the state’s 46 other active lighthouses as well (except for a couple that are privately operated). Once or twice a week, he volunteers with the Coast Guard, sailing or choppering out to do technical repairs on lighthouses, buoys, and day beacons. It’s work that some lighthouse enthusiasts find mildly scandalous, however. Among other things, Trapani installs and repairs hi-tech LED lights (only eight lighthouses in Maine, including Owls Head, still have the classic glass Fresnel lenses, which look like installation art), and to hardcore nostalgists, the newfangled systems are a betrayal of heritage. “But we landlubbers tend to care more about that than the people at sea who are actually going to use these,” Trapani says.

To his thinking, technological upgrades help justify historical conservation. LEDs are reliable and efficient, which lets the Coast Guard keep lighthouses operational on a limited budget. Otherwise, lighthouses might find themselves decommissioned — and once the light goes out, it ain’t really a lighthouse anymore. And although most modern-day mariners rely on GPS, Trapani notes, “In the unpredictable world we live in, you never know what is and isn’t going to work electronically.” Weather has downed GPS systems before. “If we can help someone who might need a lighthouse,” he says, “that’s a cool idea.”

Trapani reaches for the miniature lighthouse on his desk. It’s of Boon Island (“a desolate, bleak place,” he says) off York. He has dozens of models at home, but he specifically picked this one for his desk.

“I remember servicing that light and getting there at low tide when the ledge seemed pretty wide,” he says. “A few hours later, the tide coming, it almost felt like you could reach out and touch the water at either edge. That was on a nice sea day — I could only imagine when you had 25-foot seas rolling out there. You had to have a resolve to survive. I have a special place in my heart for a place like that.”

Nine Maine lighthouses have gone off-line over the years, most recently Nash Island, near Milbridge, in 1982. But Trapani intends to keep the lights on in as many as possible. “We’re at a point where lighthouses are sort of obsolete anyway,” he concedes. “But they’re not obsolete in our hearts.”

Visit downeast.com/mrlighthouse to see a gallery of Trapani’s favorite photos he’s taken while visiting and working on Maine lighthouses.

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Will Grunewald

Will Grunewald is Down East's associate editor.