Harpswell lighthouse deed up for grabs; only nonprofits need apply

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HARPSWELL — For sale: Lighthouse, free to a good home.

You might not see that posting on Craigslist, but the Halfway Rock Light Station, off the coast of Harpswell, is up for grabs for the first time since it was built in 1871.

There is a catch, of course.

The federally owned lighthouse, on a barren, two-acre ledge in Casco Bay, will only be deeded to an eligible nonprofit group that pledges to maintain the structure, both as a navigation aid and as a resource for the public good.

“They are still very important as aids to navigation,” Mike Johnson of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission said.

Under the new owners, the red, blinking light and foghorn embedded in the lighthouse (and owned by the Coast Guard) must continue to warn ships in the area of the hazards of the rocky coastline.  In addition, the resource must be put to some educational, cultural, or historic use on behalf of the public.

An entity that has been deeded a lighthouse can then apply for various supporting grants to help develop a program that helps to maintain the unique romantic appeal of America’s lighthouses.

“Lighthouses are important as far as the maritime history of the United States,” Johnson said. “They’re definitely a symbol of that history. They lend a lot of character to many coastal states.”

In order to be considered, parties must submit a letter of interest to the General Services Administration of the U.S. government by July 16, which will mark the close of a 60-day window.

Then, representatives from all qualifying entities will be allowed to inspect the property, which today includes a 76-foot, white granite tower with living quarters, an iron dome-shaped top, and an attached boathouse.

Terri-Lynn Sawyer, deputy administrator for the town of Harpswell, said the town has been notified of the lighthouse’s availability, and that the Board of Selectmen would make a determination about whether to try to acquire it.

“We intend to announce that at the May 31 meeting and look for direction, if there was any interest from the board, to pursue that on behalf of the town of Harpswell,” Sawyer said.

According to Meta Cushing of the GSA, a successful transfer of the property would be the ninth in Maine since the government began actively conveying lighthouses to responsible stewards under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000.

Nationwide, 85 lighthouses have been deeded from the U.S. Coast Guard to other entities through the program.

Of the eight that have been transferred in Maine, five have been granted to qualifying stewards, while three have been sold.

The numbers mark progress in an effort to see more of Maine’s 67 lighthouses transfer from the Coast Guard into the hands of groups that are willing and able to support them with the funds and care needed to preserve their character.

Most recently, in 2011, the Ram Island Ledge Lighthouse off the coast of Cape Elizabeth was sold for $190,000 after a bidding war drove the price up from the qualifying bid of $10,000.

GSA officials said that they anticipated that at least one or two qualified nonprofit agencies would emerge; the property will only go to bid if no qualifying nonprofit is approved.

Moose Peak Light Station, a lighthouse on Mistake Island in Washington County, failed to attract qualified nonprofits last year; on June 4, minimum bids of $10,000 will be accepted by the GSA.

Commercial activities at the Halfway Rock lighthouse are prohibited, unless special permission is granted by the secretary of the Department of the Interior.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or matthh@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hh_matt.

Sidebar Elements

Nonprofits are invited to apply to become the new steward of the 140-year-old Halfway Rock Light Station, off Bailey Island.

A piece of history

The history of Halfway Rock, located halfway between Cape Elizabeth and Cape Small, is long and colorful, characterized by men with salt-soaked souls capable of enduring the endless hours of tedium punctuated by terrifying weather events.

“It was always there,” local literary luminary Robert P. T. Coffin wrote in 1946, as cited by Jeremy D’Entremont on his website, lighthouse.cc. “When I turned my head on my pillow as a child, in my little bedroom under the giant elm, in our sea-captain’s house in Penneville, I could see it blinking away out at the head of Casco Bay. … That lighthouse went right with me to the edge of sleep.”

According to lighthouse enthusiast Kraig Anderson, locals first began agitating for a lighthouse in 1835, when Capt. George Small of Bath was swept overboard after being grounded on the rock where the lighthouse now sits. It took 36 years and another shipwreck tragedy before $60,000 in funds were successfully leveraged to erect the lighthouse.

The so-called “Perfect Storm” of 1991 destroyed the station’s marine railway. Other storms have taken other structures, including a 43-foot tower designed to hold a massive, 1,000-pound fog bell.

In between, published reports from former lighthouse keepers have told of passing the time by counting the dimples on a basketball, or tracking the number of flies killed each day, according to D’Entremont.

At least one keeper was removed by authorities based on a belief that he had been driven insane by the isolation of the post.

In 1975, the light was replaced with an automated, solar-powered lighting system.

The American Lighthouse Foundation has held a license as a tenant of Halfway Rock since 2000.

— Matt Hongoltz-Hetling