Storied Lighthouses of the Eastern Seaboard

The Future of Lighthouses in America

NJ lighthouse in need of upkeep and restoration

Images of iconic coastal beacons are everywhere... from stirring motivational posters, to sunset photos on Facebook to the Cape Cod Potato Chips logo. We see them on sailing trips or days at the beach or long drives along the coast. Recent events are shining a new light on these seaside sentinels. Only two-thirds of them still function as navigational aids. Some lighthouses are passing into private hands. Some have become offshore inns for short-term swashbucklers. More ominously, even celebrated landmarks are being threatened by storms related to climate change and could be at risk of destruction after centuries of guiding sailors to safety.

Still, lighthouses continue to inspire photographers, poets and history buffs. This spring two new books about lighthouses have been released. As the area gears up for the 300th anniversary in September of Boston Light, the country’s oldest lighthouse station in the Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park, one lighthouse historian and writer, Jeremy D’Entremont cautions that a number of the estimated 800 lighthouses remaining in the country (of about 1,000 original lighthouse stations) are in dire need of upkeep. In particular, he points to aging offshore lighthouses, those stalwart towers perched on rocky ledges or small islands, posing logistical challenges for even the most devoted preservationists. “One of the hardest things is getting people to realize that lighthouses need help and money, said D'Entremont. The New Hampshire-based author of more than a dozen books on lighthouses and maritime history, including “Boston Light: Three Centuries of History said, “People don’t realize the federal government is no longer taking care of all these structures. It’s falling to nonprofits, where the lack of money is a constant struggle." If lighthouses are endangered, however, it’s not for lack of love. The Facebook page for Friends of New England Lighthouses, launched by D'Entremont, now has more than 9,600 members who actively post photos and reflections. Last spring saw the publication of the 500-plus-page “Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouses by Marblehead resident Eric Jay Dolin. Dolin delves deeply into the technological evolution of these navigational lifesavers and the lives of the men and women who kept them lit through time and tempests. They have much to teach. “Lighthouses created a wonderful backbone of a book [to explore] all kinds of threads of the American experience, Dolin said. They reflect the growth of the nation, tragedy, personal inspiration, architecture, engineering feats, heroic rescues, devastating storms, maritime commerce and industrial and scientific design. They were essential to the commercial progress and military strategies of the American colonies. And, they were often targets in wartime. Take Boston Light, the country's first lighthouse, built in 1716 on Little Brewster Island, which was [will be] feted summer and fall with a host of activities. It’s widely known that the British blew up the original Boston Light with a keg of gunpowder when they evacuated Boston in 1776. However, the British were only returning the favor to patriots who had twice before attacked Boston Light and put it out of commission, actions Dolin details with great relish. “Look at it this way: Lighthouses don't distinguish between friend or foe. They help out anybody, Dolin said. So they can help the home team or they could help the enemy. Thanks to the Brits, New Jersey can boast of having the nation's oldest continuously operating lighthouse, Sandy Hook Light, completed in 1764. Perhaps America's most popular lighthouse is the Portland Head Lighthouse in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. It gets more than a million visitors per year. Many mainland lighthouses, like Portland Head, are well preserved. But others are vulnerable to tides and fierce weather. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina swept away Chandeleur Light off the coast of Louisiana, which dated to 1848. Old Orchard Shoal Light in lower New York Bay, built in 1893, was destroyed by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. After the storm, there was nothing there, D'Entremont said. And last year, the 160-year-old Gay Head Light on Cape Cod was moved 129 feet to protect it from an eroding shoreline. Under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, federally-owned historic lighthouses determined to be surplus may be transferred at no cost to local governments or nonprofit and community groups. That is how the American Lighthouse Foundation, founded in 1994, came to own two of the 18 lighthouses it oversees. Duxbury Pier Lighthouse is currently up for transfer. If a suitable owner is not found, surplus lighthouses are auctioned by the US General Services Administration. Each year, a few go up for sale, with prices varying from $30,000 to just shy of a million, D'Entremont said. Through this process, Boston-area special effects expert Dave Waller and his wife, Lynn, bought the remote and spectacular 113-foot Graves Light in Boston Harbor in 2013. The wave-swept granite tower of Minot's Ledge Light, offshore from Cohasset, was purchased at auction in 2014 by Polaroid chairman and philanthropist Robert Bobby Sager. (If you're hankering for your own beacon, see what's available at: So, you want to own your own Lighthouse?) Living in a lighthouse was a childhood dream of Nick Korstad of Fall River. When I was a little kid I wanted to be a lighthouse keeper; when I got older, I realized there were no more lighthouse keepers, he said. Korstad realized his dream in 2010 when he bought the surplus Borden Flats Light in Fall River, Massachusetts. He has turned the 1881 lighthouse into a guesthouse where paying customers can be keepers for a night or two. It's still a working lighthouse. The United States Coast Guard maintains the light, but Korstad is responsible for the upkeep of the rest of the property, which he acknowledges, is challenging. Nonetheless, the 35-year-old just obtained another lighthouse. He's created a lighthouse preservation nonprofit that was recently awarded ownership of the Stratford Shoal lighthouse in Connecticut. He plans to restore it and run lighthouse-keeper educational programs. While private ownership of national treasures may give some lighthouse purists pause, Dolin concludes that nonprofits and governments can't care for all the nation's aging lighthouses, but the private sector has proven to be a bulwark against further demise. Korstad does express concern about the future of lighthouses, noting that many of today's lighthouse tourists are in their 50s or older. If the millennials don't take an active interest, the organizers of lighouse-preserving nonprofits will pass away and no one will take them over." he said. For the moment, “lighthouse tourism is very strong, Dolin said. Lighthouses conjure up in your mind a vision of the past. They allow your imagination to wonder: What would it be like to be a lighthouse keeper? What if I were a mariner out at sea coming to the United States for the first time and finally see a light that indicated I was close to port and safety?

Tours, visits, more . . .

For Boston Light Tours: Visit Boston Light

To Visit Boston Light and Other Area Lighthouses: Visit Boston Light and Other Area Lighthouses

To Stay Overnight in a Lighthouse: Stay Overnight in a Lighthouse

To Stay Overnight at a New England Lighthouse: Stay Overnight in a New England or Northeast Lighthouse

Shining Example May Be The Answer

It's not a good day when there's no light in the lighthouse, but two months ago that is exactly what happened. A very intense storm in mid-January knocked the lights out at Cape Hatteras. There was no light in the lighthouse for over a month. But the U.S. Coast Guard saved the day because it is their job to "keep the lights on,"... a responsibility the service inherited from the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1939. The Coast Guard recently overcame various hurdles in North Carolina to keep the famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse shining. Some of the lighthouse's rare components sustained damage from the mid-January storm. The Coast Guard hired some contractors from Ohio to manufacture necessary replacement parts from scratch for around $3,000. Coast Guard electrician’s mates from Cape Hatteras and Fort Macon turned the light back on in Buxton February 17. The Coast Guard continues to operate many historic lighthouses as active aids to navigation. Since then the Coast Guard has helped mariners navigate U.S. waterways by modernizing these navigational aids whenever and wherever possible, as technological improvements become available.

The Coast Guard has converted many of these lights to solar-powered LEDs to save on maintenance and electricity costs, as well as to minimize impact on marine ecosystems. These conversions are especially significant at isolated locations that otherwise require extensive and costly underwater cables. The recent modernization of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse in North Carolina demonstrates not only a thriving partnership between the Coast Guard and National Park Service, but their shared commitment to saving taxpayer dollars and protecting the environment as well. Through the agencies’ cooperative initiative completed in the fall of 2017, the famous lighthouse was upgraded with an LED optic that runs on solar power. Even in modern times, lighthouses are still important tools for navigation. U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Nate Cox told the Associated Press that even with GPS and digital mapping, you can’t beat the power and simplicity of a lighthouse. For that reason, the Coast Guard is working to keep the lights on... and, because it's their job. At many historic lighthouses, the lights are flicking back on with solar power. The Cape Lookout Lighthouse in North Carolina recently went under the surgeon’s knife. Last Fall 2017, the 161-year-old Cape Lookout emerged with new cutting-edge technology powering its iconic exterior. The lights are now solar-powered LEDs and a beautiful array of solar panels power the surrounding Visitor Buildings. The Coast Guard, Park Service and engineers thought this was important. Solar-powered LEDs save a lot on the electric bill. The modernization will save money and reduce impact to the coastal environment. “The cost to replace an existing submarine cable at one of our Mid-Atlantic lighthouses can be $2 to 3 million, said Chris Scraba, deputy chief of the waterways management branch for the 5th Coast Guard District in Portsmouth, Virginia in a press release. “The cost to modernize that same light with solar panels and an LED optic can be significantly less. Solar-powered LEDs are also a low-impact technology. Lighthouses in remote locations usually require elaborate underwater cable networks to keep the power on. These underwater cables disrupt the marine ecosystem. Solar-powered LEDs don’t. “Installing a new submarine cable could potentially disturb the coastal environment, said Capt. Jerry Barnes, chief of prevention for the 5th District in a press release. “The shift to solar panels is the natural solution and aligns with our mission to protect marine environments and living marine resources. Modernization of Cape Lookout is not ahistoric; in fact, it’s a significant part of Cape Lookout's innovative past. Between 1859 and 1982, the lighthouse's power source was modified 10 times. The light source originally relied on a diesel generator, gradually shifting to commercial power, then underwater cables and now, in 2018, solar power.

This could be part of a very bright future.