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 beckons us to explore these lighthouses and maybe learn about their history.
Maine has been at the forefront of conservation efforts for its lands, wildlife, and lighthouses. 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 to preserve the heritage of lighthouses nationwide. In 1992, Lighthouse Digest Magazine was created to educate and inform readers nationally of lighthouse history and preservation. 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 protected these coastal beacons in need and transformed some into tourist attractions and living history centers to raise funds 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 structures needing repairs. 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 the preservation of various lighthouses throughout the country. As mentioned, many non-profit organizations under the Lighthouse Preservation Act have worked tirelessly to raise funds to rebuild these magnificent structures embodying our strength and the American spirit.
Volunteers are always needed; you can also become a member of the American Lighthouse Foundation with a small donation. The ALF sponsors events at many lighthouses and has many non-profit organizations or chapters, especially in New England, that assist 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 historical 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, 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 supporting lighthouses, buoys, and public piers. Each year, August 7 is celebrated as National Lighthouse Day, although not congressionally approved, with many lighthouse sponsor groups offering general public tours, cruises, and historical 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 soon.
Enjoy the summer!
The Rise and Demise of the Largest Sailing Ships: Stories of the Six and Seven-Masted Coal Schooners of New England. In the early 1900s, New England shipbuilders constructed the world’s largest sailing ships amid social and political reforms. These giants were the ten original six-masted coal schooners and one colossal seven-masted vessel, built to carry massive quantities of coal and building supplies and measured longer than a football field! This book, balanced with plenty of color and vintage images, showcases the historical accounts that followed these mighty ships. Stories involve competitions, accidents, battling destructive storms, acts of heroism, and their final voyages.
My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Southern New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, provides memorable human interest stories from each of the 92 lighthouses, including some lighthouse history like the story mentioned above. You’ll find plenty of indoor and outdoor coastal attractions you can explore and tours. Attractions and tours include whale watching, windjammer sailing tours, unique parks and museums, and lighthouses you can stay overnight. There are also stories of haunted lighthouses in these regions.
My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Northern New England: New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont, provides memorable human interest stories from each of the 76 lighthouses, special historical information as mentioned above, and lots of stories of shipwrecks and heroic rescues. You’ll find plenty of indoor and outdoor coastal attractions you can explore and tours. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for weekly and weekend explorers. Attractions and tours also include whale watching tours, lighthouse tours, windjammer sailing tours and adventures, unique parks and museums, and lighthouses you can stay overnight. There are also stories of haunted lighthouses in these regions.
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