Thursday, March 27, 2008

Pemaquid Point Lighthouse

For this post, I turn the reins over to Sue Clark for an update on the controversy which surrounds Pemaquid Point Lighthouse.
Sue is a charter member of the Maine Lighthouse Museum, a docent and former secretary of the Friends of Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, and a member of the American Lighthouse Foundation. Her second marriage took place at Pemaquid Point Lighthouse in September of 2000. She also is the creator of two great lighthouse blogs, Lighthouse News and Spectral Keeper of the Lights about haunted lighthouses.
I am extremely honored that Sue has agreed to do a "guest blogger" spot for me, as her knowledge of Pemaquid Point is second to none.

Who Should Own Pemaquid Point Lighthouse?

At the Bristol Town Meeting March 18, 2008, voters overwhelmingly approved a warrant article to "accept the gift of the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse Tower at such a time as it is declared excess property and offered to the town by the federal government (the U.S. Coast Guard). "
Wow, I knew the town had a severe misunderstanding of all things Pemaquid Point, but this is one of the better ones.
By way of background, the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, arguably one of the best known lighthouses in Maine by virtue of it being featured on the state quarter in 2003, is part of the Town of Bristol's Lighthouse Park. When the lighthouse was electrified in 1934 and the last lightkeeper left, the town later bought the land surrounding the lighthouse to turn into a park. And they did, and used the house as both a rental apartment (upstairs) and as the Fisherman's Museum (downstairs). The Coast Guard of course retained the immediate land surrounding the light, as it is still an active aid to navigation.
Everything was fine for the next sixty years. The light was there for everyone to view, but no access to the lighthouse tower was provided. Sometime around 1993, the Coast Guard, who only visited the tower three or four times a year to change the bulbs, offered to lease the tower to the town for maintenance. The Selectmen refused at that time, citing costs and liability reasons as to why they shouldn't accept it.
Fast forward to the year 2000, when the federal government enacted the National Lighthouse Preservation Act, which put non-profit organizations on an equal footing with municipalities. Several lighthouses were outsourced at that time, since the Coast Guard was getting out of the lighthouse preservation business. Pemaquid Point was not on the list, but since Bristol had earlier refused to maintain and open the light, the American Lighthouse Foundation was approached, and accepted the long term lease from the Coast Guard. The tower, sadly in need of a paint job, was painted by volunteers from New England Lighthouse Lovers, an ALF chapter.
Then came September 11, 2001. The Coast Guard was put in charge of Homeland Security as their priority, and in the switch over, records pertaining to Pemaquid Point Lighthouse and Bristol's refusal of same were lost or misplaced. The Coast Guard has never been the best record keepers at times, but this loss would prove to be the basis of the controversy. In early 2003, initial meetings with interested citizens were held to form a local chapter for Pemaquid Point Lighthouse. This group, calling themselves the Friends of Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, set to work in May to clean up the ground floor of the tower, fix it up in preparation for opening it to allow visitors to climb the tower. On Memorial Day weekend, the lines waiting to climb wound all around the park. At first, the tower was only guaranteed to be open Wednesday afternoon, but as more volunteers signed up the days were extended. Eventually the tower would be open from Mother's Day to Columbus Day from 9 am to 5 pm, seven days a week. No money was charged to climb the tower, but donations were encouraged. The town of Bristol charges a $2 per person park entry fee, and encourages donations in the Fisherman's Museum, so this was felt to be the best way to raise money.
ALF and FPPL met with the Bristol selectmen and town manager, and went away with promises to work together for the good of the tower and park. A spirit of cooperation was in the air. When the quarter was released in June, 2003, the ceremonies were held at the lighthouse, and served to provide the publicity that the tower was open for climbing.
Enter John Allen, the head of the Fisherman's Museum. From the beginning, Allen resented the money the FPPL was "taking" from the Museum. The accusations started. First, the FPPL was accused by him of "selling" things at the lighthouse. This was because the organization had bought thousands of the quarters and were selling them as a fundraiser.
At one point, the ALF met again with the selectmen and park board and extended an offer to fund and build a replica of the original fog bell mechanism. This was refused because the "town didn't want anyone controlling the bell tower." Of course, it wasn't an attempt to take control, but to work in the spirit of cooperation that had supposedly been offered at that initial meeting. This type of non-cooperation on until November 2005, when matters were brought to a head at a presentation ALF gave at the school about their and FPPL's work by accusing the ALF of underhandedly stealing the lighthouse away from Bristol. Both in person and in a subsequent letter to the editor in the local newspaper.
Well, that set off a storm of controversy, especially when Allen claimed the lighthouse belongs to Bristol and should not be run by people "from away." Just to clarify, "from away" in Maine means anyone not a Maine native. The American Lighthouse Foundation was born in Maine, and is still in Maine and has no plans to leave Maine. Hardly from away. And it has been the position of ALF, the National Park Service (the owners of the lighthouse), and the FPPL that the lighthouse, like all of them, belongs to everyone, not just Bristol. And of course, all the transfers of ownership have made access to the lighthouse by the public a requirement for any entity taking over the deed.
But the town saw money to be made. After all, visitors have come from every corner of the planet to climb, over 50,000 per year, and the dollar signs started spinning in their heads, as in, "What's an extra two dollars to climb the tower? We can get that money instead."
One of John Allen's better statements in a letter to the editor came when he claimed that because Bristol doesn't own the tower, no one will ever be able to use that image of the lighthouse again because "ALF has it copyrighted." Hmmm, tell that to the US Mint. If that's the case, they owe mucho bucks to the ALF.
And then came Town Meeting 2007, when the town voted to spend $10,000 to find a lawyer to break this sneaky and underhanded lease and return the tower to Bristol. Of course, by now, no one can find the original refusal, and the town can't find it either. And no one remembers being offered it in the past. A Lighthouse Committee was then started to seek out ways to break this lease. This false pride of ownership is strongly reminiscent of what happened at Currituck Beach Lighthouse. See

And now the voters have spoken. The town will graciously accept thelighthouse when the US Coast Guard offers it to them. Well, that's not how it works, people. The lighthouse has to be formally excessed, which the National Park Service will then add to their notice of availability list. For a period of time, applications will be accepted. The Park Serivce will then review the applications, and grade them accordingly. At that time, the possible applicants will be asked to submit further documentation. In anywhere from six months to a year, or even longer, the decision will be made. And I strongly suspect the American Lighthouse Foundation will come out ahead. A major renovation was undertaken by ALF on the tower this past summer, and the Town of Bristol contributed not one thin dime. Nor have they ever contributed any monies. In fact, they didn't think the lighthouse needed anything at all as far as maintenance.

What do you think? Should the Town of Bristol "own" this tower, like they think they should, or does this historic and beautiful lighthouse belong to all of America?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Based on just this article, I think the National Park Service should keep title to the lighthouse. The town of Bristol has not built up any "equity" (cash, in-kind, or sweat) in the lighthouse property. If the NPS doesn't want to keep the lighthouse, then certainly pass title to the ALF.

Neil Edgington
Bellevue, NE

April 20, 2008 at 5:46 PM  
Anonymous Clare said...

Thanks for your insightful, informative article — haven't seen a better one on this issue anywhere. The Bristol lighthouse may be located in Bristol, but clearly "belongs" to America. All money it generates, whether through visitor fees or other means, should be invested in maintenance, upkeep, education, and other lighthouse-related functions. The city of Bristol benefits in many ways from the tourism generated from the lighthouse, regardless of who "owns" it. The National Park Service and ALF have proven themselves to be excellent lighthouse stewards.

January 26, 2010 at 10:33 PM  

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