Lighthouse Preservation Act Twenty Years Later and the American Lighthouse Foundation
Establishment of the Maine Lights Program
Lighthouses signify endurance and strength in our culture. They have acted as guides for mariners, fishermen, tourists, and immigrants alike. These beacons welcomed most of our ancestors as they came to our country. The allure of these structures beckon us to come and explore these lighthouses, and maybe to learn about their history.
Maine has been at the forefront on conservation efforts of not only its lands and wildlife, but its lighthouses as well. As automation of lighthouses began in the middle to late 1900s, and as government budget cuts became more frequent, many of Maine’s lighthouses, and lighthouses across the nation fell into disrepair from neglect and became targets of vandalism.
Peter Ralston, of the Rockland-based Island Institute, devised the Maine Lights Program to transfer lighthouse properties to local agencies and organizations with a more personal interest in the structures’ survival, with the Coast Guard retaining responsibility only for the lights themselves. In 1993 the Coast Guard handed over Heron Neck Lighthouse, which was deteriorating and in need of much repair, and the first lighthouse under the program, to the Island Institute, which Ralston founded, and which in turn leased the property to a private party who restored the beacon, and still own the lighthouse today.
This idea of having local organizations maintain lighthouses started initially with the rebuilding of Maine’s Heron Neck Lighthouse, called the Heron Neck Project, under the Maine Lights Program in 1993. Organizations soon started to sprout up with the purpose of preserving the heritage of lighthouses all over the country. In 1992, Lighthouse Digest Magazine was created to educate and inform readers nationally of lighthouse history and preservation, and in 1994, the American Lighthouse Foundation was established with its primary mission of becoming directly involved in lighthouse preservation on a national scale. Both of these organizations started in Maine.
By 1996, with help from Senator George Mitchell and Senator Olympia Snowe, the Maine Lights Program had become a model for lighthouse preservation on a national scale under the supervision of the National Park Service, and was passed into law by Congress. This allowed 28 designated light stations in Maine to be transferred to selected non-profit organizations as the Coast Guard relinquished ownership of those lighthouses deemed in need. Specially selected non-profit organizations would provide approved plans to help maintain and provide public access to a particular lighthouse, and become directly involved in raising funds for restoration efforts. These organizations provided protection for these coastal beacons in need, and transformed some of them into tourist attractions and living history centers to raise funds in their efforts to maintain these beacons.
The Lighthouse Preservation Act and the American Lighthouse Foundation
The Maine Lights program provided a national and international blueprint for modern day lighthouse conservation. In 2000, Congress passed the Lighthouse Preservation Act used today to help maintain those structures in need of repairs. Today, twenty years later, there are still many lighthouses in desperate need of repairs, as the program has saved countless beacons that would have been destroyed and became simple earmarks of our nautical history. Many volunteers across the country have been busy over the years working on projects involving preservation of various lighthouses throughout the country. As mentioned, there are many non-profit organizations under the Lighthouse Preservation Act that have been working tirelessly on rising funds to rebuild these magnificent structures that embody our strength and the American spirit.
Volunteers are always needed and you can also become a member of the American Lighthouse Foundation with a small donation. The ALF sponsors events to many lighthouses, and has many non-profit organizations, or chapters; especially in New England that provide assistance to those beacons in need. Their headquarters is now at Owls Head Lighthouse, in the keepers’ building. Their growing army of volunteers contributes over 25,000 hours of service annually towards the cause of lighthouse preservation, they provide educational and public access programs, and provide the ability to reuse various historic sites throughout the nation.
The website for the American Lighthouse Foundation provides all kinds of lighthouse news, history, events, and gifts in which most proceeds help with lighthouse preservation. There is also info on tours as well. You can also visit Owl’s Head Lighthouse where their headquarters are nowadays, and explore the grounds. The foundation also offers tours. They also coordinate Maine Open Lighthouse Day, during September, where visitors can enjoy rare opportunities to climb the towers of about two dozen historic Maine lights. They also sponsor each year, usually around the end of June or beginning of July, the Midcoast Maine Lighthouse Challenge around seven lighthouses, among other events.
“National Lighthouse Day”: August 7
On August 7, 1789, Congress approved an Act for the establishment and support of lighthouse, beacons, buoys and public piers. Each year, August 7 is celebrated as National Lighthouse Day, although not congressionally approved, with many lighthouse sponsor groups offering the general public tours, cruises, and historic presentations for education, to pay tribute to America’s lighthouses. Many organizations are trying to get Congress to permanently designate August 7, as National Lighthouse Day, which hopefully will become a designated national reality in the near future.
Enjoy the summer!
My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Southern New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, provides special human interest stories from each of the 92 lighthouses, along with plenty of indoor and outdoor coastal attractions you can explore. These include whale watching excursions, lighthouse tours, windjammer sailing tours and adventures, special parks and museums, and lighthouses you can stay overnight. You’ll also find plenty of stories of haunted lighthouses. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for all you weekly and weekend explorers.