Historic lighthouses come with high costs
Years ago, Lou Schillinger and his team began restoring a 1890s lighthouse. It was more than 2 miles off the Michigan shore. The lighthouse was in Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay. But first, the restorers needed to remove 30 years' buildup of gull and pigeon poop. The poop's depth measured in feet rather than inches.
That was in the mid-1980s. Then, he reached an agreement with the Coast Guard. The deal was to prevent the Port Austin Reef Lighthouse - his "Castle in the Lake" - from being taken down. It would have been lost forever.
"That first summer, my dad and I ran out there with a 14-foot rowboat and a 20-foot ladder because there was no access ladder. And we just began shoveling manure," said Schillinger, 66. He is president of the Port Austin Reef Light Association. It is a nonprofit group. In 2013, the group took title of the property from the federal government. No keeper had lived in the brick building with its five-floor tower since 1952. The roof was gone.
"We shoveled diligently," Schillinger said. "I'd get friends out there. They would come out and volunteer. And they'd show up for one day and they would never come back again because it was such a miserable job."
About 120 lighthouses no longer critical to the Coast Guard in 22 states and Puerto Rico have been acquired at no cost by government entities and nonprofits. Some were sold to private individuals. Many are eager to preserve the landmarks. And, maybe tap into their tourism potential since they became available under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. Upkeep was too costly to keep them in operation. Besides, now most sailors use GPS devices rather than lighthouses to help navigate waters.
Winning bids have ranged from $10,000 for the Cleveland East Pierhead Light in Ohio to $934,000 for the Graves Light. It is in Boston Harbor. More are auctioned every year. But buyers must be careful. For the lighthouses, years of neglect, vandalism, limited access and hammering by the elements often have turned them into labor-intensive money pits. Buying a lighthouse is a risky business.
"People (need) a conviction that these buildings and the history they represent are worth saving," said Terry Pepper, 68. Pepper is executive director of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association.
Port Austin Light was built on a shallow reef. It can only be reached by boat when winds are light. Otherwise, waves are too choppy to dock and get off. Pepper's association overcame similar access issues when it renovated a lighthouse on the 160-acre St. Helena Island. The island is seven miles west of the Mackinac Bridge. It took about 20 years and $1.5 million to finish the job. That was in 2005.
Nobody had lived in the 1870s lighthouse since 1922. It had become a destination for partiers, scrappers and vandals. Pepper's association got the lighthouse before the 2000 act. It also is restoring the Cheboygan River Front Range Light. It is in Michigan.
"The roof had huge holes in it," Pepper said of the Port Austin Light. "Somebody had lit a fire on the floor in one of the bedrooms on the second floor. Every single window in the lighthouse was gone. All the doors on the inside of the brick lighthouse were gone. Railings on the stairs were gone. And the plaster inside the lighthouse had been kicked down."
Pepper estimates the group has spent $1.5 million and "untold thousands of hours of volunteer labor" restoring the St. Helena property. It must meet state and federal standards for historic preservation.
"We . . . have to be asking for money all the time," Pepper said. Where does the money come from? It is obtained through grants, donations and selling memorabilia. Great Lakes lighthouse cruises also are offered.
Potential buyers often contact Pepper. They want to gain some of his knowledge of lighthouses, particularly those in Michigan. The state has 129 lighthouses. That is the most in the U.S.
"I will tell people if you end up spending $100,000 to get that lighthouse, that's a lot of money," Pepper said. "But $100,000 is the tip of the iceberg."
Onshore lighthouses are no bargain, either.
A volunteer group spent about a decade and nearly $1.9 million to buy and renovate North Point Lighthouse in Milwaukee. It opened to the public in 2007. Since then, it has attracted more than 80,000 tourists. It has cost more than $1.1 million to run it. The money comes from entrance fees and events, donations, fundraising and grants.