Friday, October 26, 2007

Lighthouses in Vermont?

As most of us at The Cape Cod took a short sabbatical this past week in order to get ourselves geared up for the upcoming busy holiday season, my "vacation" actually turned into a working/ sightseeing excursion.

Autumn in New England is a spectacular time, and this year was perhaps the most spectacular we've seen in many years. With that in mind, my wife Karen and I combined two of our favorite pastimes, leaf peeping and lighthouses.

When most people think of lighthouses, the state of Vermont isn't normally on the list. There are lighthouses in Vermont, however, on Lake Champlain. After the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain is the largest fresh water lake in the U. S. Accessible from the north by the St Lawrence Seaway, and from the south by the Hudson River, Lake Champlain played an important part in the country's early history.

It was along the banks of Lake Champlain where General Horatio Gates and a young Benedict Arnold lead the raw American troops to victory over the mighty British army at Saratoga, NY. The earlier efforts of Arnold and a small flotilla of American craft which drove the British navy out of Lake Champlain contributed greatly to the victory.

It was also on the New York shores of the lake where Vermont native Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys captured the British fort at Ticonderoga. It was the cannon which were captured here and dragged through the winter mountains which helped George Washington's fledgling "army" drive the British from Boston.

Due to its size and proximity to both Canada and New York City, Lake Champlain became a vital waterway to commercial traffic in the 17 and 1800's. With its many islands and navigational hazards, it was only natural that lighthouses would be built to aid the maritime traffic.

Burlington, Vermont, the largest city on the lake, has a natural harbor unequaled by few cities, even those which are on the ocean. In order to protect the harbor from rough waters from westward winds, a breakwater was constructed in 1823, with wooden lighthouses on both the north and south ends a few years later. When these lighthouses were destroyed by ice, new wooden lighthouses replaced them. Again destroyed by ice, the lighthouses were eventually replaced by steel skeletal lights by 1950.

In 2003, the skeletal towers were replaced by lights which replicated the originals built during the 1800's.

Burlington North Breakwater
Burlington South Breakwater

On the very south end of Burlington Harbor is another lighthouse which was erected by the nearby condominium owners. This lighthouse isn't an official aid to navigation, although it does sport a light bulb which illuminates at night. Named "Phony Baloney Lighthouse" by the condo owners, the lighthouse was built just for aesthetics.
The "Phony Baloney Lighthouse"

At the north end of Lake Champlain, almost at the Canadian border, lie a number of large islands. Connected now by the bridges of Vermont Highway 2, these island passages were treacherous for 19th century mariners. Isle la Motte Lighthouse is on the northernmost island in this group, aptly named Isle la Motte. Originally painted orange, the light has faded to a salmon pink color.

Isle la Motte Lighthouse
Just to the north of Isle la Motte, a peninsula hangs down into Lake Champlain from the Canadian side. Just below the border, a tract of land juts out into the American side of Lake Champlain. The Windmill Point Lighthouse lights the way from the top of this jutting tract of land.

Windmill Point Lighthouse

Both the Windmill Point and Isle la Motte Lighthouses are privately owned, and are not open to the public.

Just to the south of Burlington, in the town of Shelburne, is the Shelburne Museum. This large museum contains a host of buildings and other Americana, most of which date back to the 1800's. Trains and train stations, horse barns and buggies, circus items, a blacksmith shop, an 1800's working printing press, and a carousel are just a small sample of the numerous exhibits. The museum even sports the last walking beam side-wheel passenger steamer in existence, the 220 foot Ticonderoga.

Adjacent to the Ticonderoga lies Colchester Reef Lighthouse. The lighthouse's original home was on a reef in the middle of Lake Champlain. In 1952, the decommissioned lighthouse, along with its original granite pier, was relocated to the grounds of the Shelburne Museum.

Colchester Reef Lighthouse
Inside Colchester Reef Lighthouse
Unfortunately, though there are furnishings in two of the upstairs bedrooms of the lighthouse, the remaining rooms are empty, save for some photos and stories of Lake Champlain shipwrecks and the like. The tower is also unaccessible. I wish the museum would try to totally restore the inside of the lighthouse to the time when it was active, and attempt to better portray the lives of its keepers. The lighthouse was interesting to see, but quite lacking.
There are also other lighthouses on Lake Champlain which we weren't able to get to. We attempted to view Juniper Island Light near Burlington from a cruise ship, but the lighthouse, which is on a privately owned island, was very difficult to see through the trees.
On the New York side of the lake are the privately owned Barber's Point Light in Westport, the recently renovated Bluff Point Light on Valcour Island, (we missed the public tour excursion which ended for the season in September), the Point Aux Roches Light in Plattsburgh, Split Rock Point Light in Essex, (another privately owned lighthouse), and the Champlain Memorial at Crown Point.
So many lighthouses, so little time.....

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Sunday, October 7, 2007

Requiem for a Lightship

Shame on the City of New Bedford, Massachusetts!

Lightship #114, built in 1930 at the Albina Iron Works in Portland, Oregon, was one of a "new breed" of lightships. At 133.3 feet long and a draught of 13 feet, LV114 was a very impessive specimen. It contained a new hull design, a new "direct diesel and diesel-electric propulsion" system, and state-of-the-art sound signals and locating devices. The lightship also boasted a 375mm electric lens lantern at each masthead, accounting for a 16,000 candle power capacity.

Lightship #114 was the first lightship to ever make a west coast to east coast trip, (via the Panama Canal).

LV114's first assignment after reaching the East Coast was to mark the shoals off Fire Island at the entrance to New York Harbor. It was removed from Fire Island in 1942, and until the end of WWII in 1945 served out of Bay Shore, NY as an "examination" vessel, armed with one 6-pound cannon.

At the conclusion of WWII, 114 was assigned for two years to Diamond Shoal, NC, just off the Outer Banks near Cape Hatteras. In 1947, 114 was removed from Diamond Shoals and for the next 11 years, became a "relief vessel" throughout the northeast U. S. (The purpose of a relief vessel was to temporarily take the place of permanently stationed lightships so that repairs and maintenance could be made on those vessels and the hazards they marked were not left unattended).

In 1958, 114 was again given permanent assignment, this time at Pollack Rip, a very dangerous "ship-eating" area just off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. After 11 years of serving Pollack Rip well, the lightship was again reassigned, this time to aid in the marking of Portland, Maine harbor.

After 41 years of dedicated service, Lightship 114 was decommissioned by the Coast Guard in 1971 with the intention of turning it into a "floating" Coast Guard maritime museum. Plans for the museum fell through, however, and in 1975, ownership of LV114 was transferred to the City of New Bedford.

There were grand plans for 114 in the mid 70's in New Bedford. Repainted and redubbed "New Bedford" by the city, the lightship was planned to be part of the newly revamped downtown area, complete with the remaking of the historical area around the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the Seamen's Bethel, and a number of other buildings which dated back to New Bedford's heyday as the 1800's whaling capital of the world. The lightship would be part of the historical tourist area, open to visitors with "interpreters" conducting tours. It seemed like the perfect match for a lightship which served the surrounding area well.

Having grown up around the New Bedford area around this time, it seemed to me and the people of New Bedford that outwardly the city was turning a corner. After the collapse of the whaling industry, the city, once one of the richest in the world, became a shell of its former self. Eventually, textile factories replaced the whaling industry as the identity of the city, and a large fleet of fishing boats once again made New Bedford a maritime area of importance. As the textile industry slowly moved to the lower employment costs of Southern U. S. cities and closed their New Bedford factories during the 1960's and 70's, New Bedford unemployment was astronomical, (these were also the days of the 70's recession and gas shortages), and the city had to do something to revitalize the city, which was falling into disrepair. The city decided to try something new, to take its rich history and turn it into a tourist attraction.

Lightship "New Bedford", as it was now called, fell into the trap which many historical buildings, etc. get caught in. Although the intentions of the City of New Bedford were great, there never seemed to be enough money in the city's coffers to maintain the lightship and open it up to tourism, as was the intention. Over the years, 3 different mayors pledged to restore the lightship and make it a tourist attraction, but always, other priorities arose in this city which always seems to be struggling with a depressed economy. After 30 years of neglect, LV114 just couldn't endure any longer.

On May 31, 2006, the lightship rolled over on its side due to water which leaked in during a violent thunderstorm because of an open portal. In July of that year, while the City was still struggling with what to do with the lightship, and still on its side, vandals removed 23 historic brass portholes from the exposed side.

In September of 2006, after almost four months, the lightship was finally righted and the city was continuing to explore options of how to dispose themselves of 114. In December, the City posted the lightship on eBay, of all places, trying to recoup their losses for the cost of righting the ship and the years of storage. Sea Roy Enterprises, a scrap metal yard in New Bedford, was the lone bidder at $1,775. The city pulled the lightship off eBay and attempted to sell it to other area scrap yards, with no takers. It then negotiated another deal with Sea Roy, this time for $10,000, nowhere near the $212,000 the city spent to right the lightship and clean it up, but got the most anyone was willing to pay them for it.

Sea Roy towed the lightship from its mooring at the Commonwealth Electric Pier in June to its scrap facility just a short ways away on the Acushnet River, and by the end of that month, the once proud lightship was being dismantled.

LV114, last known as the New Bedford Lightship, is now only a memory. The City of New Bedford should be ashamed of itself! There was absolutely no reason that it ever should have come to this. If the city was unable to go ahead with its initial plans, it should have found a new home for the lightship many years ago, one that would welcome and respect the historic significance of this treasure. Unfortunately, this episode is typical to the way the City of New Bedford has been managed for as long as I can remember. One can only hope that lessons are learned here by other municipalities and we will never experience another historic treasure to fall into the same fate as LV114.
So long, LV114. Thank you for your service. You deserved a better fate.

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