ISLE AU HAUT, Maine — Maine’s lighthouses are no longer manned by loyal custodians dedicated to keeping the light shining and bells ringing to guide sailors safely into harbor. Now, they’re all automated, turning on and off at the right times, and need far less hands-on attention than in the past.
Today’s fishing vessels rely more on global positioning devices than on beacons of light on the horizon. Still, these spires remain key pieces of Maine coastal communities, which are fighting to preserve them and future generations remember the role they played.
Residents of two Maine islands, Isle au Haut and Swan’s Island, have joined forces to bring new life to their historic lighthouses.
“It’s such a huge part of our identity and history as an island, and we want ensure it stays that way,” said Jeff Burke, chairman of Isle au Haut lighthouse committee.
About 40 members of lighthouse committees representing both islands met last month at the 110-year-old Isle au Haut lighthouse tower, perched on the rocks overlooking the narrow channel between Isle au Haut and Kimball Island. They had a similar meeting last summer on Swan’s Island to get a glimpse of restoration efforts that have already happened there.
Both lighthouses are still in use, and the lights themselves are maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard, but significant restorations of the structures themselves and the former keepers’ houses are up to private groups. In addition to helping lobstermen and sailors find their way, the lighthouses are among the islands’ key tourist attractions.
The groups have been collaborating more closely in recent years, even sharing the same engineer when planning their extensive restoration projects.
Restoration efforts on Isle au Haut are expected to pick up pace later this summer.
The tower needs extensive masonry and structural work. Rusted girders need replacing, as do cracking bricks and crumbling mortar caused by decades of freezing and thawing. The estimated cost of this work is $350,000, though more costs could emerge if more issues are discovered.
One of the more challenging portions of the Isle au Haut project will be replacing the historic fog bell that once hung over the water, suspended from a beam jutting out of the lighthouse. The keeper would use a system of weights and pulleys to make the bell ring automatically for up to six hours. The bell they’re trying to replace was 42-inches in diameter and weighed 1,500 pounds, and they’re still in the process of looking for a suitable fill-in.
The group has raised about $60,000 toward that effort over the past three years, about $15,000 of which it has spent on engineering and outreach work.
The first phase of the project, replacing some important structural components of the lighthouse, is expected to launch later this fall, but it could be about three years before the group is prepared to launch the second phase, which will include the bulk of visible restoration and masonry work.
The historic lighthouse keeper’s residence has been converted into an inn, which is owned and maintained by Marshall Chapman, a geologist who opened the property in 2013.
The Swan’s Island group is already in the midst of its restoration of Burnt Coat Harbor Light, which dates back to 1872. The group recently completed a two-year overhaul of the former lighthouse keeper’s residence, converting the upper floor into weekly rental units.
They’ve also started renovations on the lighthouse tower, removing rust and lead paint — which a local contractor had to attend classes to become certified to remediate.
Now the group is preparing to enter phase 2, which will involve putting staging around the entire tower to repair masonry work and restore the metal cupola, but it needs more funding before tackling that project.
The full restoration project was estimated to cost $1.5 million, and the group has already spent about $500,000 of that , according to Eric Chetwynd of Swan’s Island’s committee. By relying heavily on volunteers for painting and carpentry, the group has saved on some of these expenses and expects the final cost could come in closer to $1 million.
The group is also planning on selling a donated plot of land on the island to raise money toward the effort. The listing price is $95,000.
The crew of the Sunbeam V, which travels around Maine’s islands throughout the year to provide telemedicine, counseling and religious services, picked up residents from Swan’s Island in the morning and brought them about 10 miles southwest across Jericho Bay to Isle au Haut.
It’s a trip that likely wouldn’t have been possible without the Sunbeam, because as is the case with many spots on Maine’s jagged coastline, a 10 mile journey is almost never as simple as it seems.
To get from Swan’s Island to Isle au Haut, one has to hop on the ferry for the 40-minute trip north to Bass Harbor, then hop in a car, drive through summer traffic off Mount Desert Island, head to Ellsworth, turn back south toward Deer Isle-Stonington on the other side of the Union River. In good conditions, that drive might take an hour and a half. Then in Stonington, one has to buy a ticket to catch the mail boat for the roughly 40-minute ride to Isle au Haut, which can get crowded in summer months. Then, the same thing has to be done in reverse to get home.
“It just never would have been possible to get two large groups together like this to discuss a shared challenge if we hadn’t stepped in to help make it happen,” said Douglas Cornman, director of island outreach for the Sunbeam.
The two committees say they plan on staying in close touch, sharing advice and contacts as they push forward with these restoration efforts.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.