The Working Waterfront

Maine’s lighthouses face troubling recovery

Damage from storms not easily repaired

By Sarah Craighead Dedmon
Posted 2024-04-02
Last Modified 2024-04-02

Back-to-back storms slammed into the coast of Maine on Jan. 10 and Jan. 13, breaking state records for the highest tides since 1978 and delivering extensive damage along the entire coastline. Though final tallies are not in, statewide damages to public infrastructure —things like piers, roads, and bridges—are estimated at more than $70 million.

The storms also delivered extraordinary damage to more than a third of Maine’s lighthouses.

“What really hurt us was that the storms were so close together,” says Bob Trapani, executive director of the American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF). “Whatever the 10th compromised, the 13th just took it out. These old foundations didn’t stand a chance in the back-to-back battery.”

Many of the damaged lighthouses are structures that have already seen their fair share of violent weather.

“The Hurricane of 1938 wiped out Rhode Island’s Whale Rock Light and the keeper was never found. It did a lot of damage to other lighthouses, too, and killed seven lighthouse service members,” says Jeremy D’Entremont, historian for the U.S. Lighthouse Society and host of the society’s long-running podcast, Light Hearted.

At least 24 of Maine’s 67 lighthouses were damaged in the January storms.

“There have been a few other storms in history that did a lot of damage to lighthouse properties,” says D’Entremont. “But other than the 1938 hurricane, they don’t compare to these storms.”

Costs to repair Maine lighthouses might be measured in the millions. At least 24 of Maine’s 67 lighthouses were damaged in the January storms, according to a survey conducted by ALF, and more damage reports are expected this spring, for offshore lights still difficult to reach in winter waters.

“Routine maintenance on a lighthouse is something you can schedule, you can budget for it. Offshore, that might be $20,000 every five years,” says Ford Reiche, who restored and owns Halfway Rock Light in Casco Bay. “But then you throw a storm at it and it’s $250,000, and that can’t be phased. That’s the thing that’s going to throw a lot of chaos at these lighthouse owners.”

On the high end, some Maine lighthouses might need $2 million in storm repairs, says Reiche.

“Some of the biggest costs will be the access points. Ram Island in Boothbay lost the walkway from the island to the lighthouse,” Trapani says. “As of right now, the Coast Guard can’t even access that light. Whitehead Island was another one where the boathouse collapsed and was pretty much destroyed. They lost their entire walkway to the pier.”

After the storms, Trapani and Reiche embarked on a 243-mile helicopter trip to survey 23 Maine lighthouses, including Mt. Desert Rock Light and Matinicus Rock Light, both more than 25 miles offshore.

“It pulls at your heart to see the damage,” says Trapani. “I don’t think people understand. The sea does unimaginable things at these places.”

How—and in some cases, if—the most damaged lighthouse properties will be restored is an open, and urgent, question, says Trapani.

“Time is not on our side with these lighthouses.”
—Bob Trapani

“What’s sad is, if we’re not able to strengthen these lighthouses today it only becomes more expensive tomorrow, and will we even have all of them?” asks Trapani. “Time is not on our side with these lighthouses.”

In February, Gov. Janet Mills requested a Major Disaster Declaration from President Biden. If approved, it could make available some Federal Emergency Management Agency grants for qualifying nonprofits.

Access to FEMA grants to pay for lighthouse storm repairs will depend in part on who owns the damaged lighthouses, whether they’re public or private property.

Of Maine’s 67 lighthouses, part or all of 33 lighthouse properties are owned and operated by a branch of government—some state, some federal, and some municipal, with clear sources of funding. In some cases, nonprofits care for all or part of the property while the government runs the lighthouse works. Sixteen are owned by private individuals, and 18 are mostly the responsibility of nonprofits.

The American Lighthouse Foundation is ramping up to assist in the competitive and complex FEMA grant application process. Federal grants might also be made available for prevention measures, or disaster mitigation, too, to prevent more damage in the future.

“We need some professional folks who can help us navigate hazard mitigation as well as disaster relief,” says Reiche.

“What I’m going to do at Halfway Rock is secure the dock and the ramp and the boathouse more securely to ledge. If measures like those had been taken before the January storms, the statewide lighthouse damage would have been much less.”

Many of the hazards that damage lighthouses, like high winds and flooding, aren’t covered by insurance policies. And even in a year without punishing storms, access to historic preservation funding is nearly nonexistent.

“The grants are very, very hard to come by. I have never gotten grants for Halfway Rock,” says Reiche. Halfway Rock’s light is currently not functioning because, during the storms, water crashed through the building housing the light’s electronics.

“Most of the lighthouses in Maine are in the hands of local organizations that just have no resources. It’s astonishing because these lighthouses are built to last, but now we’re up against a new level of intensity and there are no established pipelines of money,” Reiche says.

There isn’t a lot of historic preservation money in the state’s grant program, says Kirk Mohney, Maine’s state historic preservation officer. The agency provides technical assistance to anyone undertaking historic projects and currently holds preservation covenants on the 25 lighthouses that were transferred to nonprofits through the Maine Lights program.

“We’re in a fairly regular conversation with the groups that may be working on something,” says Mohney. “The challenge and the responsibility that these stewards have taken on is to their great credit. Because for Maine, these are symbols of the state, and these organizations that have assumed ownership have taken on the responsibility to preserve those for everyone.”

There’s one way any Mainer can help lighthouses, says Trapani, and that’s by choosing the Maine Lighthouse License Plate. In 2021, Maine lighthouse supporters came together and founded the Maine Lighthouse Trust, which then purchased the license plates now sold by the state. Ten dollars of every plate goes directly to the Trust.

“This organization is going to take that money and grant it out to those organizations most in need,” says Trapani.
Though Maine isn’t home to the most lighthouses—that distinction belongs to Michigan with 129—it is home to some of the most iconic lighthouses, like Pemaquid Point Light, which is featured on the Maine state quarter. It lost part of its 19th-century bellhouse in the storms.

“Maine lighthouses are some of America’s oldest as a group and they have a great place in the history of our nation,” says Trapani, who has penned six books about lighthouses, including his most recent release, Beacons of Wonderment: A Fascination with Maine’s Lighthouses.

“Maine lighthouses are especially beautiful,” Reiche says, “and there’s also something unique about the nature of the Maine coast. Our lighthouses aren’t on long, flat beaches like many states are. Maine lighthouses are on heights of land, and some are way offshore, in the most grisly locations. These are badass lighthouses, for sure.”