HMS Friday: The Lighthouse That Nobody Wants
by Mark Lukach
This could be yours.
Minot’s Ledge Light, a lighthouse a few miles off the coast of the Massachusetts towns of Cohasset and Scituate, was first built in 1850, destroyed a year later, and rebuilt in 1860. It is known as the I Love You Lighthouse. It is a beacon of immense importance; alerting ships to the shallow rocks below it, and of stunning beauty; as it braces against winter storms. The New England Historical Society calls it “the most dangerous and romantic lighthouse in America.”
It is also the most unwanted. The US government has been trying to sell Minot’s Ledge since 2009, and there has not been a single bid in 5 years.
In the year 2000, the US Congress passed the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, an ammendment to the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, which aimed to transfer ownership of many of America’s lighthouses into private hands. Lighthouses had been put under the jurisdiction of the Coast Guard in 1939, back when most were still manned by human beings who manually lit and extinguished the lights. But with the automation of lights that began in the 1960’s, coupled with increasingly sophisticated navigational technology aboard ships, lighthouses became less about functionality, and more about nostalgia and preservation. In short, most folks just think they’re too damn charming to fall into disrepair. For many lighthouses, the Act has worked well; in its inaugural year, nine of the nine available lighthouses found new, private owners. Down in Florida, the St. Augustine Light was purhcased by the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum Inc, and serves today as a museum and aid-for-navigation.
As you might imagine, the Minot’s Ledge Light is steeped in history. It was built a few miles offshore atop a treacherous ledge of rocks that sit only a few feet below the sea’s surface – rocks that are only above water for a few hundred hours each year during dramatically low tides. Otherwise, the ledge lurks as a hidden navigational nightmare. When the site was assessed in 1843 by a lighthouse inspector, some 40 shipwrecks had occurred at the ledge in the previous decade alone.
And because the site sits offshore, deep, open-ocean swells that aren’t expecting the suddenly shallow water turn themselves inside out, heaving themselves up onto the ledge – and into the light. During a powerful wintertime nor’easter, Minot’s Ledge is among of the most dangerous places on earth a human could visit.
The first design for the lighthouse was a disaster. The fear was that a traditional cylinder would get pummeled into smithereens by the waves, but the much more sleek pilings would be be less resistant to the slosh of wind and water. Which I guess was considered a good idea. Nine iron pilings were driven five feet into the rocks of the ledge, and the lighthouse quarters were perched atop the pilings.
The first lighthouse keeper, Isaac Dunham, quit after 9 months. His third month into the job, he wrote: “The wind E. blowing very hard with an ugly sea which makes the light reel like a Drunken Man–I hope God will in mercy still the raging sea–or we must perish…God only knows what the end will be.”
Dunham was replaced by John Bennett, who hired Joseph Wilson and Joseph Antoine as his assistants. Tragically, both Wilson and Antoine lost their lives on April 16, 1851, when a nor-easter obliterated the entire structure. The morning after the storm, only a few pilings were still standing. A few days after the storm, a local fisherman found a message in a bottle from the keepers: “The beacon cannot last any longer. She is shaking a good three feet each way as I write. God bless you all.”
Reconstruction was essential–the ledge was still a hazard–but a new approach was needed. Engineers reverted to the traditional cylindrical lighthouse, and used two-ton foundation stones to anchor the lighthouse to the rock. The work could only be done at extreme low tide, when ledge was exposed. Two years into the rebuild, a ship crashed into site destroyed all the construction, and the project had to be completely restarted. Rebuilding Minot’s Ledge Light took 5 years, and at $300,000, became the most expensive lighthouse ever built in American history. [$1 in 1860 is the equivalent of $28.90 today, meaning the lighthouse cost at least $8.67 million in today’s dollars.)
Once steadily anchored into stone in 1860, Minot’s Ledge Light became the tank its engineers had hoped for It’s weathered incredible beatings – the 1933 Chesapeake-Patomac Hurricane, the Ash Wednesday storm of 1962, 1991’s Perfect Storm and 2012’s Hurricane Sandy , but it hasn’t budged in 154 years. The most famous photograph of the lighthouse, which opens this story, is from a blizzard in 1978. It shows the ladder along its side crusted in ice, and whitewash almost reaching 112 feet to the top of the tower.
The lighthouse has earned the charming nickname of the I Love You Lighthouse, because of its lighting pattern. It flashes one light first, then four flashes, and then three. I is one letter, L-O-V-E is four, and Y-O-U is three…so there you go. (Some people interpret the four flashes as M-I-S-S, which is still pretty damn romantic.)
I am not an expert on all of America’s lighthouses, so I can’t verify the New England Historical Society’s claim that Minot’s Ledge is the most dangerous and romantic in the country, but it is undoubtedly an incredible lighthouse. Thoreau wrote about it while it was still being constructed; Longfellow visited, as did Helen Keller. Its history is rich, its aesthetic equally so.
Unfortunately, the light is also an absolute pain in the ass to get to, which probably explains why no one has bid on it, despite an opening bid of a mere $10,000 – for a lighthouse that saved countless lives and cost the equivalent of $8.67 million to build. Of course, the light is still regularly pummeled by storms and salt spray, so one would imagine that the cost of maintenance for corroded metal components is probably pretty high.
In 2009 The Boston Globe lamented that the lighthouse had not attracted any bidders. The two closest towns, Cohasset and Scituate, clearly value its historical legacy, but that hasn’t motivated anyone to cough up the cash. The chairmen of the Cohasset Board of Selectmen made a blunt assessment: “Once we own it, what do we do with it?”
So despite its history, danger and romance, the Minot’s Ledge Light remains an anomaly: an unwanted, man-made artifact that rises 112 feet above the the ocean, rather than lying beneath it.
While the auction of Minot’s Ledge Light drags along, with no bidder in sight, the lighthouse will continue to stand boldly, stoicly in plain sight; a reminder that everything we use, no matter how storied and beautiful, will some day become useless and unwanted.
Bid on the lighthouse, if you are so bold. Opening bid is $10,000, and you will be the first bidder in 5 years. Realize, there are limitations. You can’t turn this into your personal dwelling grounds, or a B&B, or anything like that. The stipulations of the NHLPA insist that all lighthouses remain open and available to the public.
National Parks on Minot’s Light Ledge
New England Lighthouses
Boston Globe in 2009 on the lack of bids
New England Historical Society on Minot’s Light Ledge
PDF of National Historic Preservation Act, with 2000 amendment of the NHLPA