June 20, 2018
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Whiting couple preserves lighthouse lore with magazine, books

By Sharon Kiley Mack, BDN Staff

WHITING, Maine — A Whiting couple has found a unique recipe for success: Take one man’s passion for history, combine his wife’s passion for lighthouses, toss in a flair for detective work, and the result is Lighthouse Digest, a unique monthly magazine out of Whiting that is now reaching 23,000 subscribers.

Tim Harrison and Kathleen Finnegan write and publish this one-of-a-kind magazine at their Whiting home overlooking Holmes Bay.

But it was when they lived in New Hampshire that the idea for the magazine was hatched.

“We had been driving all over Maine photographing lighthouses,” Harrison explained. “And we found a lot of people doing the same thing.”

Lighthouses have always captured the imagination and are extremely popular with vacationers.

“They are representative of heroism, bravery, ghosts, rescues and another way of life,” Harrison said. “They were built only to save lives and no two are the same.”

But the couple also found there was a great lack of information about the history of the structures and they and others who visited the lighthouses wanted to know more.

Harrison, being a go-getter type of guy, decided to write a book and after a bit of research, self-published 30,000 copies of “Lighthouses of Maine and New Hampshire” in 1989.

“It was a terrible book,” he admitted. But the couple bought a 24-foot motor home and traveled up and down Maine’s coast selling them.

“We sold them all,” he said.

Included in that book was a little form in the back to subscribe to Lighthouse Digest — which was only an idea at the time.

Harrison said 34 people subscribed but the couple felt that was not enough so they sent the people their money back.

“Every one of the 34 sent it back to us,” Harrison said, “so I decided we were on to something.”

The first issue of Lighthouse Digest was published in 1992 for those first 34 subscribers.

Today, the magazine has 23,000 subscribers in 19 countries, and Harrison has written or co-authored 11 books on lighthouses around the country.

“We spend years searching for descendants of the old lighthouse keepers to track down a photograph. Other times people find us, sometimes by accident; perhaps while doing their own research of their family tree,” Harrison said.

As word has spread of their work, new material has poured in. A few days ago, a man from Vermont stopped at their home and dropped off a box of photographs. The man’s father had been a lightkeeper at Quoddy Head and the man had been trying to get the photographs — 100 of them — to Harrison and Finnegan for three years.

“There have been thousands of photographs of lighthouses, but most people didn’t take pictures inside,” Harrison said. It is these historical photographs of life within the lighthouses that the history buff inside Harrison treasures.

“I’m really into saving the memories of the men and people that lived inside these lighthouses,” he said. “People have literally come through the door with shopping bags full of photographs, diaries, artifacts and journals.”

But along with the donations of photographs comes the mysteries. “Who is this? Where was this?” Harrison said, looking at pictures. “I have to be a bit of a detective.”

In a room next to a lighthouse gift shop in their home, the couple has wall-to-wall file cabinets.

“I have files on every lighthouse in the country,” Harrison said.

The couple also has been instrumental in saving dozens of lighthouses across the country that were slated for demolition, including the Little River Lighthouse in Cutler.

“We can work to save the lighthouses,” Harrison said, “but if we don’t save the memories and the photos and the stories, they are just cold structures.”

Lighthouses are among the oldest historic structures in America, he said. “You can learn more about American history from lighthouses than anywhere else.”

In August 1787, the first Congress passed its first public works act when it federalized all lighthouses, Harrison said. “There were 13 at that time,” he said. “Early lighthouse keepers were then appointed by the president of the United States.”

Maine is unique because it contains the most old lighthouses of any state, he said. There are about 68 — depending on how one counts. Not all have lights and some are on lakes. Purists only count those sanctioned by the U.S. Lighthouse Service. Harrison said no one knows for sure how many there are in the U.S., since records were not preserved and many are now gone.

“There are about 800 still standing,” he said. “At one time there were more than 3,000.”

The original operators, the U.S. Lighthouse Service, was abolished in 1939 and lighthouse operation was taken over by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Harrison said the lighthouse service was the forerunner of the U.S. Weather Bureau and the Federal Aviation Agency.

“There are so many stories,” he said.

Today, people plan their vacations around lighthouse visits, get married at lighthouses and have their ashes scattered at lighthouses.

“Not to mention that most lighthouses have gorgeously beautiful locations,” Harrison said.

But Harrison said lighthouses are at a critical stage since retired lightkeepers are now in their 60s and 70s.

“We are approaching the end of an era and we only have a few years left to gather all these memories from the keepers,” he said.

Their greatest success, beyond helping to save and restore lighthouses, was Harrison’s discovery of a Cape Cod lighthouse that historians and locals had believed was destroyed.

“I discovered that it had been moved to California, not destroyed,” he said.

Local historical societies often try to keep lighthouse records, Harrison said, but added that “no one is doing it on the scale we are, and not for the whole country.”

“Sometimes we are so busy, we are overwhelmed,” he said. But he added that he also is having a lot of fun and getting to work on two more books: “Lighthouse Murder, Mystery and Mayhem” and “Ghost Lights of Maine.”

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