Acadia National Park is poised “any day now” to take over the vacant Bass Harbor Head Light Station, setting the stage for a new era for the iconic lighthouse, one of the most popular attractions within the park’s boundaries.
Ahead of becoming the new owner, Acadia is weighing recommendations in a new study of Bass Harbor Head Light by the National Park Service’s Historic Preservation Training Center. The “Bass Harbor Head Light Station Historic Structure Report,” produced with funds donated by the Friends of Acadia, is aimed at guiding future rehabilitation and repair work at the 2.75-acre complex including the original 1858 lighthouse with its cylindrical brick tower, the 1858 keeper’s dwelling, and the 1905 wood-frame garage.
The Coast Guard currently owns the iconic lighthouse and other structures and has been planning to transfer it to Acadia since 2017
“Apparently, all the paperwork is sitting with the General Services Administration and they need to do sort of the final paperwork to get it to us,” John T. Kelly, management assistant for Acadia National Park, said. “It should have happened a long time ago. It is really any day now but we have been saying any day now for months.”
When it assumes ownership, the National Park Service is hopeful of finding a partner to staff, operate and maintain the lighthouse and other buildings, maybe, for instance, a nonprofit group such as Eastern National, which promotes education of National Parks with books, other products and services, or the Tremont Historical Society, Kelly said.
Bass Harbor Head Light sits vacant
Situated on a dramatic rocky ledge at the southernmost tip of Mount Desert Island, the complex has been vacant since 2012 after the Coast Guard’s commander of the Southwest Harbor Station stopped using the keeper’s dwelling as a residence.
The Coast Guard is writing language in paperwork that would give it access to the site to continue to maintain the lighthouse as an active aid to navigation and pay for the power after it is transferred to the national park.
“The lens is in good condition, and the USCG will continue to use it,” Kelly wrote in a followup email. “USCG said it would be replacing the current white incandescent lamp with a red LED lamp and removing the red plexiglass encasing that currently colors the beam.”
The lighthouse’s fourth-order 1901 Fresnel lens is a type invented by Augustin-Jean Fresnel, a Frenchman who transformed lighthouse lens technology, making it much brighter, in the early 1800s.
The lamp, which produces the light, and the lens, which amplifies and directs the light, are housed in a lantern, or glass enclosure on the tower, Kelly explained.
Iconic lighthouse 5th most visited site
Kelly said Bass Harbor Head Light Station, the official name for the entire complex, is the fifth most visited attraction in the park, behind No. 1 Cadillac Mountain, Sand Beach, Thunder Hole and Jordan Pond. Kelly said it is exciting for the park to take ownership of the lighthouse.
“It’s in an iconic location,” Kelly said, noting that it represented the park on the “America the Beautiful” quarter issued in 2012.
Bass Harbor Head Light was also depicted on the first of 16 US Postal Service forever stamps to celebrate the NPS’s 100th anniversary in 2016, on the cover of the 2017 Rand McNally Road Atlas and is on the 2020 Acadia annual park pass. It was also listed on the National Register of Historic Places in January 1988.
Kelly said Acadia is ready to take ownership of the iconic lighthouse after completion of an environmental assessment of the site last year. The assessment assured that Acadia is not inheriting oil spills or other environmental cleanup that it would need to fund.
“We are really all set to go,’’ Kelly said.
Bass Harbor Head Light Station will add to Acadia maintenance backlog
At the same time, the property will require about $200,000 to $250,000 in immediate work and more rehabilitation money in the future from Acadia, which already has about a $60 million maintenance backlog.
“It is an important resource but we are concerned about the cost of operating and maintaining it for sure,” Kelly said.
“Until we decide what to do with it, we won’t know what the costs of rehabilitating it are,” he added.
The park is not leaning toward any particular use, he said, and he did not want to guess when the park would approve a new partner to occupy the site. A use would include an interpretive component to help visitors understand the history and importance of Bass Harbor Head Light.
“We have set some goals for it and one of the goals is that we find a use and a partner that either eliminates or greatly relieves us of operational costs,” he said.
The iconic lighthouse, designed to guide mariners into Bass Harbor, a fishing village to the northwest, would become the third lighthouse owned by the park. The other lighthouses under Acadia’s jurisdiction are on Baker Island and Bear Island, two of the five Cranberry Islands off Mount Desert Island.
The entire 10-acre Baker Island Light Station is under the jurisdiction of Acadia National Park, having been acquired from the U.S. Coast Guard in two parcels in 1958 and 2011. The Coast Guard has an easement to maintain the light in the light tower.
A lessee is responsible for upkeep and maintenance of the Bear Island light.
Exterior restorations should keep historical character, report says
The Historic Structure Report, released in February, urges exterior restoration of all buildings at the Bass Harbor complex to depict the form, features and character of a period of significance up to 1948 when modernization started.
The report calls for interior rehabilitation to allow for a compatible and adaptive use, while attempting to preserve character-defining features.
The Historic Structure Report cited modest maintenance deficiencies and rated as fair the overall condition for all five buildings at Bass Harbor Head Light Station, which also includes the 1897 bell house and the 1902 oil house.
The iconic lighthouse, one of about 65 in Maine, itself is in overall fair condition with serious maintenance deficiencies including deteriorated paint and rust.
The report said that maintenance needs, while requiring to be addressed, “are superficial and in no way signify justification for any treatment other than full restoration of the buildings and continued use.”
The report, for example, identified the exterior railing on the balcony on the lighthouse, as being in poor condition with deformed metal components at the original upper rail and significant areas of rust, paint peeling, and metal splitting into layers.
The walls of the lantern, or the portion of the tower that encloses the lens, are in poor condition. The report also recommends installing historic-style roller shades inside the lantern to protect the lens.
There is also deteriorated paint, rust, and staining on the cornice area above the glass panes of the lantern.
Inside the keeper’s dwelling, the historic main stairway is in good structural condition but is dangerous due to slippery carpet and inconsistent treads and risers.
Friends of Acadia leads effort to protect iconic lighthouse
When the lighthouse was automated, it assured the end of a long line of keepers who tended the light through storms and cold.
The report pays homage to keepers such as carpenter James L. Wilson of Tremont, keeper from 1872 to 1880, who lived in the keeper’s dwelling with his wife and six children, and Leverett S. Stanley, keeper from 1940-1950, promoted to Bass Harbor from his job as keeper on Great Duck Island Lighthouse, where he made $1,400 a year.
Kelly noted that because Bass Harbor Head Light is such a special destination, there is a lot of philanthropy available. Friends of Acadia raised nearly $300,000 to protect the lighthouse during its 2018 annual benefit and is seeking donations to help make the property a permanent cultural and educational asset in the park.
“Something attractive like that is a lot easier to raise money for than to pave a road,” Kelly said. “It always will have that benefit of being a feature that people have a lot of interest in preserving. There are several national organizations that are dedicated to lighthouse preservation. We’re interested in talking with them. The American Lighthouse Foundation is in Rockland [Maine] and we have had initial discussions with them and they are certainly interested in hearing what we can do with it and suspect they will be a good source of at least advice if not possible funding.”
The light station is also important for hiking in Acadia.
At the southeast corner of the parking lot, a maintained trail and steep wooden stairs lead down to the rocky coast. While the view toward the light station is impressive, the rocks can be treacherous and even crowded.
An asphalt path on the southwest corner of the lot leads to the tower and several displays on the history and importance of the light station.
Traffic and parking can be problems at Bass Harbor Head Light Station
While it’s a nice hike, visitors often need vehicles to reach the remote Bass Harbor station and vehicles can create issues.
Kelly told the Acadia Advisory Commission in 2019 that traffic management at the complex will also be important. Parking is free at the light station but there are only about 25 spaces and capacity may need to be expanded in the future.
The town of Tremont and the NPS currently enforce “no parking” along half-mile-long Lighthouse Road, the dead-end entrance road off Route 102A that has been often been lined with vehicles on a sunny day, especially near sunset.
During the 2019 season, the entrance road was closed a record 32 times because of traffic congestion.
“A big portion of what we need to do as we move forward is not to just look at the lighthouse and how we are going to use it but to look at how it affects that whole area, including access, parking and transportation,” Kelly told the commission in 2019, according to the commission minutes.