Sunday, September 19, 2010

Maine Open Lighthouse Day speech

The following is the speech I made at the Maine Open Lighthouse Day event at Portland Head Light yesterday.

I’m very pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the second Maine Open Lighthouse Day. Twenty-one years ago, on August 7, 1989, I stood in the audience right here during a celebration of the 200th anniversary of the federal Lighthouse Service. F. Ross Holland, one of our country’s greatest lighthouse historians, gave the keynote address that day. I’d like to quote part of his remarks from that event.

“Americans love lighthouses. Artists and photographers find them picturesque. The dreamer finds them romantic. The boaters find them comforting. The navigator finds them helpful. The shore walker finds them peaceful. The historic preservationist feels they make a statement about a period of time. The historian is fascinated with the human and technological story they embody. And the idealist is drawn to them because they symbolize man’s humanity to man. Americans truly like and respect their historic structures, but it seems to me there’s a special place in their hearts they reserve for lighthouses.”

It’s hard to improve on Mr. Holland’s statement. There’s no doubt that lighthouses have very wide appeal. But with so many good causes vying for our attention these days, it seems that we sometimes need to remind people of the importance of historic preservation in general, and in particular the importance of preserving lighthouses as symbols of our maritime history. As it says on the website of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “When historic buildings are torn down or allowed to deteriorate, a part of our past disappears forever. When that happens, we lose history that helps us know who we are.”

Public access is a central component of the effort to preserve our historic lighthouses. By opening lighthouses so that people can experience them first hand, we hope to foster a deeper appreciation for these historic treasures.

Opening lighthouses to the public is not a new idea – it’s a part of the proud tradition of the Lighthouse Service and the U.S. Coast Guard. Back in the days of the civilian Lighthouse Service, it was considered part of a keeper’s duty to show visitors around their light station.

Here at Portland Head Light, Joshua Freeman served as keeper from 1820 to 1840. Captain Freeman was noted for his jovial hospitality. By today’s standards, he may have gone a little too far.

He kept a supply of rum and other spirits in a cupboard, and he’d sell drinks for three cents a glass to visitors who came to fish near the lighthouse. The top-shelf liquor was reportedly reserved for the local minister.

An 1825 newspaper article described the pleasures of a visit to Portland Head:

“I know of no excursion as pleasant as a jaunt to the Light House. There our friend Freeman is always at home, and ready to serve you. There you can angle in safety and comfort while old ocean is rolling majestically at your feet, and when wearied and fatigued with this amusement, you will find a pleasant relaxation in tumbling the huge rocks from the brinks of the steep and rocky precipices. . . . I know of no equal to a ride or sail to the Light House and earnestly recommend it to all poor devils who, like myself, are afflicted with the dyspepsia, gout, or any of the diseases to which human flesh is heir.”

Captain Freeman’s namesake, Joshua Freeman Strout, later served as keeper here from 1869 to 1904. He often played host to the great poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who lived in Portland. Portland Head was always a tourist attraction, and a favorite pastime of visitors was watching the crashing surf during storms.

A tremendous storm swept the Maine coast in November 1871. The Eastern Argus reported that many people came to Portland Head to view the spectacular surf, and Keeper Joshua Strout “kindly furnished every reasonable facility for the accommodation of the sight seekers.” The sound of the waves striking the shore was described as “a roar like the voice of many Niagaras.”

Later, in the Coast Guard era, which began at Portland Head just after World War II, a constant stream of tourists was still a way of life at the light station Under the station’s first Coast Guard keeper, William Lockhart, the station was open to the public Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., except when the fog signal was sounding.

Lockhart said that visitors were mainly interested in enjoying the views. Most were thrilled with the scenery, but one woman from the Midwest expressed disappointment when she saw the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. “I thought it was bigger,” she said.

Visitors occasionally took advantage of the hospitality of the keepers. Wes Gamage, a Coast Guard keeper here at Portland Head in the early 1960s, was always sure to keep the doors and first-floor windows locked so tourists couldn’t wander in. Once, Gamage’s wife was taking a bath upstairs when several camera-toting tourists suddenly burst right into the bathroom. It turned out they had forgotten to lock one of the doors.

Some keepers capitalized on the popularity of their lighthouses. William M. Brooks of Kittery, Maine, was keeper at the Cape Neddick “Nubble” Light in York in the early 1900s. Brooks picked up extra cash by ferrying sightseers to the island. He also kept a supply of fishing gear and bait available for visiting fishermen. The ferry service allowed as many as 200 to 300 people to roam the island on a busy weekend day. Ten cents was charged for round-trip ferry service to the island, and an additional five cents was charged for a tour of the station, led by his wife. The lighthouse authorities finally decided enough was enough, and Brooks “resigned” from lighthouse keeping in 1912.

At many family light stations, the keepers’ children often served as tour guides. At isolated Boon Island, about 8 miles off the southern Maine coast, 14-year-old Annie Bell Hobbs, a keeper’s daughter, wrote in 1879 about entertaining visitors at the lighthouse:

“In the summer we have quite a number of visitors, who board at the beaches during the season. They come to see the lighthouse and all it contains; and we are very glad to show them all, though it is quite tiresome to go up into the light a number of times during the day, since it is one hundred and twenty-three feet from the rock on which it stands to the light.”

At Cuttyhunk Light in Massachusetts, little Seamond Ponsart, daughter of Keeper Octave Ponsart, gave lighthouse tours for many visitors in the early 1940s. She later wrote:

“As any lighthouse kid knows, a lucrative source of income was taking summer tourists up to the top of the tower and giving them the spiel about how high the lighthouse was, the number of steps, how far the light was seen, how to run the lighthouse, and so on. The keepers were not allowed to take tips, but not so for the kids.  I had this routine down pat by the time I was five and my piggy bank account swelled considerably.”

With the automation of our nation’s lighthouses in the last century, we’ve entered a new era.  Keepers and their families no longer polish the lens, mow the grass, or whitewash the towers. And of course, keepers and their families are no longer at home to show tourists around or to answer their questions. All of those tasks are now the domain of the preservationists, historians, and volunteers.

Across the nation, thousands of people have stepped into the role of 21st century lighthouse keepers. From the staff and volunteers here at Portland Head Light, through the chapters of the American Lighthouse Foundation, to the countless preservation groups along all the coasts of the United States, the call to save our lighthouses has been heard and answered.

That’s not to say the task is easy – it’s far from that. For those of us in the field of lighthouse preservation, every day presents new obstacles, challenges, and frustrations. Some of the more inaccessible offshore lighthouses will likely fall to ruin in the coming years, victims of modern technology and an uneasy economy.  All we can do is our best, but some days it seems like that’s not enough.

I urge all of you who care about lighthouses to do something. Donate a few dollars, donate some of your time. Come up with an idea to raise money for lighthouse preservation. Lots of individual efforts can add up to something really big.

I’d like to close with some lines from my favorite lighthouse poem, “The Lighthouse Keeper Wonders” by Edgar Guest. In the poem, Guest’s fictional lighthouse keeper is facing retirement when his lighthouse is automated. This is the last stanza of the poem.

It's strange for a lighthouse man like me
after forty years on shore to be.
And I wonder now - will the grass stay green?
Will the brass stay bright and the windows clean?
And will ever that automatic thing
plant marigolds in early spring?

I don’t think the questions Edgar Guest asked in his poem have been answered yet. It’s up to each one of us to keep the brass bright, the grass green, and the windows clean. And while we’re at it, why not plant some marigolds?

Thank you. Enjoy the day!