Lighthouses are more helpful than churches, to misquote Ben Franklin
December 10, 2014 1:34 PM   Subscribe

Do you like lighthouses? They're pretty cool, aren't they? They can be short or tall, urban or rural. They come in a variety of styles and conditions.

There have been lighthouses, or more primitive aids to navigation, in use to mark reefs, headlands, and other hazards for thousands of years. The oldest continuously operated lighthouse in the world is the Tower of Hercules, on the northwest coast of Spain, originally built by the Romans.

People love lighthouses, and there is an active international community of lighthouse enthusiasts. In the US, the US Lighthouse Society, based at Point No Point Lighthouse in Washington State, offers tours of lighthouses, both domestic and international, and maintains a database of classical Fresnel lenses and lighthouse lamps.

Classical Fresnel lenses are remarkably beautiful, but also old, fragile and vulnerable to damage and vandalism. As a result, they are gradually being replaced by more modern technologies.

Not only can you visit lighthouses, you can stay in them. Say, on an island in San Francisco Bay. Or on an island off the coast of Maine.

Would you like to own a lighthouse? You can!

Nowadays many lighthouses are being decommissioned by their government owners, because so many mariners have GPS. In the US, a federal law created a program administered by the National Park Service to transfer lighthouses to public entities or non-profits. If no government or private non-profit can be found to take responsibility for a given lighthouse, the General Services Administration will auction it off.

Of course, if you buy a lighthouse, you have to take care of it properly. As these are historic properties, there are strict requirements regarding their care and maintenance.

But in the end, you could have a really cool summer home! Although there's definitely some ambivalence in turning what was once a vital symbol of public good into a vacation home.
posted by suelac (18 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Did you know Robert Louis Stevenson came from a family of prominent lighthouse builders?

If that sounds interesting to you then I'd say you should pick up The Lighthouse Stevensons. I really enjoyed it when I stumbled upon it at the local library.
posted by RolandOfEld at 1:41 PM on December 10, 2014

And for the many Boston mefites, in the summertime you can visit our nation's oldest Lighthouse Station, CG Station Boston Light. Our 300th birthday is coming up in 2016, and restoration has been going strong since last Spring.

You can stand nose-to-nose with the 2nd order Fresnel lens, and it's gorgeous!
posted by ldthomps at 1:42 PM on December 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

One time on Ask Metafilter I asked for a romantic place to take my wife for our anniversary and someone said you could arrange to have a private dinner on top of the Newburyport Lighthouse and I made some calls and a couple months later, after having it delayed due to a storm or something, I drove my wife up to Newburyport and the next thing she knew we were climbing stairs to the top of the lighthouse and she couldn't figure out why and then we climbed up a ladder and through a hatch and there was a table set up with a white tablecloth and, you know, forks and stuff and she was like "oh my god this is amazing" and I was like "I know, right?" and after some time a woman came all the way up with dinner for us and it was a pretty neat time even though it was a foggy day so our view was maybe about 15 feet in all directions and that's the story of how my wife and I had a steak dinner on top of a lighthouse, in the fog, thanks to Ask Metafilter.
posted by bondcliff at 1:52 PM on December 10, 2014 [19 favorites]

goddamn beach knobs.
posted by mullacc at 1:59 PM on December 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

I grew up spending summers on the Outer Banks during the 60s, before the real estate boom. The tall Banks lighthouses--Currituck, Bodie Island, Hatteras and little Ocracoke--were like wonderful big reassuring friends, and climbing them was thrilling.

On later visit I was determined to get a portrait of Bodie Island Light at dusk, as it has a spectacular first-order fresnel lens. I had my tripod set up, ready to go, as the sun dropped below the horizon, and at that instant I was engulfed by millions of ravenous mosquitoes. I got my pictures, pausing only to trip the shutter as I ran in circles, shrieking curses, in the parking lot.

My favorite lighthouse experience involved an after-dark drive north from Ocracoke. We rolled off the last northbound ferry of the night and drove up the highway where waves broke to the right and the waters of the sound glittered to the left, the road no more than a ribbon atop a sand bar. After passing Hatteras village we could see the sweeping beam of the Hatteras Lighthouse cutting through darkness. It's the tallest tower on the coast, built to warn ships from the shoal-infested coast. Against rules, we drove directly up to the structure. Waves were breaking close by--the lighthouse was endangered and would eventually be moved--but the big spiral tower, silhouetted by moonlight, was reassuring, beautiful, solid as granite and yet heartbreakingly fragile.

The tower at Gay Head on Martha's Vineyard is seriously imperiled by erosion, as is one of the beautiful lights on Block Island. Rising sea levels are bound to take out a few if they can't be moved in time.

Lightships are cool too. There's one moored permanently inland at Lewes, Delaware.
posted by kinnakeet at 2:12 PM on December 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Franklin's authentic quote is pretty awesome, too. He describes this nautical close call during a trip to Great Britain in his memoirs:
"We were several times chased in our passage, but outsailed everything; and in thirty days had soundings. We had a good observation, and the captain judged himself so near our port (Falmouth), that if we made a good run in the night, we might be off the mouth of that harbour in the morning; and, by running in the night, might escape the notice of the enemy's privateers, who often cruised near the entrance of the channel. Accordingly all sail was set that we could possibly carry, and the wind being very fresh and fair, we stood right before it, and made great way. The captain, after his observation, shaped his course, as he thought, so as to pass wide of the Scilly rocks; but it seems there is sometimes a strong current setting up St. George's Channel, which formerly caused the loss of Sir Cloudesley Shovel's Squadron (in 1707): this was probably also the cause of what happened to us. We had a watchman placed in the bow, to whom they often called, "Look well out before there;" and he as often answered, "Ay, ay;" but perhaps had his eyes shut, and was half asleep at the time; they sometimes answering, as is said, mechanically: for he did not see a light just before us, which had been hid by the studding sails from the man at the helm and from the rest of the watch, but by an accidental yaw of the ship was discovered, and occasioned a great alarm, we being very near it; the light appearing to me as large as a cart wheel. It was midnight, and our captain fast asleep; but Captain Kennedy, jumping upon deck and seeing the danger, ordered the ship to wear round, all sails standing; an operation dangerous to the masts, but it carried us clear, and we avoided shipwreck, for we were running fast on the rocks on which the light was erected."
More candidly, he would write to his wife:
"The bell ringing for church, we went thither immediately, and with hearts full of gratitude, returned sincere thanks to God for the mercies we had received: were I a Roman Catholic, perhaps I should on this occasion vow to build a chapel to some saint, but as I am not, if I were to vow at all, it should be to build a light-house."
posted by Doktor Zed at 2:26 PM on December 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

Thanks for the post! It wasn't until about 2 years ago that I learned that (many) lighthouses have specific "light characteristics," which are patterns of fixed/flashing/colored/timed lights that (almost) uniquely identify each lighthouse, presumably to aid in nautical navigation when things may have gone particularly badly. Here's a list of those in the U.S. And here is the 2004 list of these characteristics for lighthouses along part of the Atlantic coast, which are coded just as the Wikipedia link outlines.
posted by joan cusack the second at 3:07 PM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

posted by OHenryPacey at 4:29 PM on December 10, 2014

It wasn't until about 2 years ago that I learned that (many) lighthouses have specific "light characteristics," which are patterns of fixed/flashing/colored/timed lights that (almost) uniquely identify each lighthouse

I knew that! Because back in the 80s my mom thought it would be a fun family thing for us all to go spend a night at Pigeon Point Lighthouse hostel. It's on the California central coast, about midway between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz. We got a tour up to the top, and they explained about the light flashing pattern. I remember lying in bed that night I could see the periodic glow through the window, and counted the seconds of the pattern.
posted by dnash at 4:35 PM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

My partner is a wildlife biologist, and every migration season he spends a few months doing fieldwork at the glorious Monomoy Lighthouse. No longer in use, it's now a wildlife refuge, and we get to camp right next to it on this ridiculously beautiful deserted island, alone except for thousands of birds.

Lighthouses are rad.
posted by Freyja at 5:09 PM on December 10, 2014

Every trip to visit my granny at her home in Waldport included a stop at the Yaquina Head lighthouse in Newport, which to me is the epitome of the form. That same said granny went every year to climb the steps, just to prove she still could, until she was 95. I'm not a big font of knowledge about lighthouses or anything, but I have strong emotional ties to that particular place.

The tidepools & rocky beach just below it are also pretty amazing. If you're driving up (or down for that matter) the Oregon coast, I would say it's the #1 must-see stop the whole way.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:48 PM on December 10, 2014

I grew up spending summers on the Outer Banks during the 60s, before the real estate boom. The tall Banks lighthouses--Currituck, Bodie Island, Hatteras and little Ocracoke--were like wonderful big reassuring friends, and climbing them was thrilling. --kinnakeet

Me too! (My Grandfather lived there). My favorite, because it was closest and we knew the couple living there, is the first Outer Banks lighthouse--Cape Lookout.

In California there's a youth hostel at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse. The lighthouse itself is being restored, but they have the Fresnel lens on display.
posted by eye of newt at 8:03 PM on December 10, 2014

We have one here on Key West.
posted by Mike Mongo at 9:05 PM on December 10, 2014

I've visited many of the Great Lakes lighthouses, and have stayed overnight on the grounds of the Whitefish Point Light Station.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:36 AM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

They even have lighthouses on the prairies!
posted by Gor-ella at 7:49 AM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I grew up spending summers on the Outer Banks during the 60s, before the real estate boom. The tall Banks lighthouses--Currituck, Bodie Island, Hatteras and little Ocracoke--were like wonderful big reassuring friends, and climbing them was thrilling. --kinnakeet

Me too!

Me three! Some of my best childhood memories are the summers I spent at my grandparents' cottage on Hatteras Island (Salvo). In fact, I recently had a drawing of Hatteras Light tattooed on my forearm to commemorate them.
posted by bradf at 10:08 AM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

That's a nice tattoo!
posted by eye of newt at 10:11 PM on December 11, 2014

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