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Government giving away lighthouses

Sunday, June 16, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Want a lighthouse? The Interior Department has such a deal for you.

It's trying to get rid of 301 of them, all considered government surplus.

The Coast Guard doesn't want them anymore, so it's willing to give them away to anybody who'll offer them a good home. There are a couple of catches: government and nonprofit groups have first dibs; and lighthouses are expensive to keep up.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton is announcing next week the first six being turned over to public and private interests under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Program.

Congress and former President Clinton created the program in 2000 at the urging of Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind. A visit in January to Point Pinos Light in Monterey, Calif. -- the oldest active lighthouse on the West Coast, where a light has been shining since 1855 -- sparked Norton's interest. She asked the National Park Service to take a closer look at what her agency could do.

Since then, the department has become the light middleman, its Maritime Heritage Program handling details for the Coast Guard.

Norton will give away Georgia's Tybee Island Light, then Lake Michigan's Point Betsie Lighthouse. Michigan, with 46, has more lighthouses being given away under the program than any other state.

She'll recommend that the General Services Administration, acting as temporary custodian for the lighthouses, turn over the first six to new owners including a city, a museum, a historical society and the Park Service.

"There is a mystique to lighthouses, a drama, a history, almost an aura of reverence for their lifesaving function," Norton said in remarks prepared for delivery at the ceremony Monday in Georgia. "It is not surprising that historians, lighthouse buffs and just plain citizens have been part of an effort to rescue lighthouses from either disrepair or neglect."

Partners in preservation

"One of the outstanding features of this law is that it puts nonprofits on an equal footing with government in becoming partners in the preservation of lighthouses," Norton said.

Cullen Chambers, director of the Tybee Island Historical Society, said he was proud and humbled that his group will help "set the stage for all future transfers in the nation."

When the lighthouse giveaway is complete, only one lighthouse in the country will be required by federal law to have a lightkeeper: the Boston Harbor Light, the nation's first one, established in 1716 on Little Brewster Island. It was blown up by the British in 1776, rebuilt, and has had a light burning again since 1783.

Along the sea and the Great Lakes, more than 200 lighthouses are open to tours. People can sleep in 15 of them in California, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington.


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