More folks call lighthouses home as feds unload sites in Mich., elsewhere

Detroit News staff and wire reports

For more than 65 years it’s been a fixture off the southern end of Mackinac Island — unmanned, but always on call.

Now, thanks to the passage of time and the proliferation of newer technologies, the Round Island Passage Lighthouse is on the verge of a new chapter. The facility, which has been operated by the U.S. Coast Guard since it came on-line in 1948, is among several lighthouses across the country that are now available for purchase.

It’s part of a program run by the U.S. Government Services Administration to divest the agency of several hundred properties. During that period, the government has sold or donated more than 100 lighthouses on both coasts and in the Great Lakes states.

Those have gone on to become everything from museums to bed-and-breakfasts. As of Friday afternoon, Round Island Passage Lighthouse had garnered a top bid of $21,500 on the GSA website.

According to a list maintained on the GSA’s website, 22 Michigan lighthouses have been transferred to new ownership since 2004, including six last year: Frankfort North Light, Grand Haven Entrance and Inner Lights, Manistique Light, Rock of Ages Light, Port Austin Light and Alpena Light.

Dave Waller, who purchased the Graves Island Light Station in the mouth of Boston Harbor for a record $933,888 last year, is retrofitting the turn-of-the-century lighthouse into a private home that can double as a vacation rental. He’s trying to fashion a bedroom as far as possible from the foghorn — a challenging feat in a building with about 750 feet of livable space.

“It just seemed like a chance to have something a little more independent and on your own,” Waller said.

Sixty-eight of the lighthouses have gone for free to preservationists while 36 others have been sold at public auction thanks to the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, which allows the government to dispose of federally-owned lighthouses. The act turns 14 next month.

The Coast Guard, which maintains lighthouses, has 71 other lighthouses queued up to go through the transfer process, and four — including Round Island — are at auction now.

The Coast Guard owns 254 lighthouses, officials said. The question is more about which ones it will keep than which ones it will eventually sell, said Jeff Gales, executive director of the nonprofit U.S. Lighthouse Society.

“There is an end in sight,” Gales said. “There’s a limited number of lighthouses.”

The GSA, which sells the lighthouses, does not have a target number of how many lighthouses it would like to sell and give away, but the Coast Guard is always looking to shed excess lighthouses that “are often no longer critical” to the guard’s work, said Patrick Sclafani, a spokesman for the agency.

Buyers and preservationists typically allow the Coast Guard access to the lighthouses so it can maintain the lights, all of which are automated.

The GSA is the nearing the end of an online auction for the Halfway Rock Light Station off Harpswell, Maine. The lighthouse is attracting interest, with a half dozen bidders and a high bid of more than $240,000.

That’s a good figure for a lighthouse that is only accessible by boat, a feature that frequently drives bidders away, Gales said.

Some of the lighthouses — typically those that are easily accessed on land — are transferred swiftly to historic preservation groups, while others that are off-shore or in need of heavy maintenance languish on the auction block with no interested bidders. Still others attract the eye of private investors, such as Boston’s Waller.

Officials say the GSA’s Boston office has been responsible for about 80 percent of lighthouse conveyances, and those transfers have netted $3.35 million for the Coast Guard.

That office closed out an auction of New England’s tallest lighthouse, the Boon Island Light Station off of York, Maine, in August with a top bid of $78,000 out of 12 bidders.

Winning bidder Art Girard of Portland, Maine, will inherit the 133-foot lighthouse and a challenge: it is on an isolated, rocky island six miles off the Maine coast, barely salient from Cape Neddick in York.

The government also is auctioning lighthouses in Massachusetts and Wisconsin.

Detroit News Staff Writer Jim Lynch and the Associated Press contributed.

On the block

Here are details on a few of the U.S. lighthouses for sale:

Round Island Passage Light

Location:

Straits of Mackinac, Michigan

Bids:

2

High current bidder:

$21,500

Claim to fame:

One of the last lighthouses built on the Great Lakes.

Halfway Rock Light Station

Location:

Casco Bay, Maine

Bids:

6

High current bidder:

$247,000

Claim to fame:

Named “Halfway Rock” because it’s halfway between Cape Elizabeth and Cape Small.

Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal North Pierhead

Location:

Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin

Bids:

2

High current bidder:

$26,000

Claim to fame:

The entire building and lighthouse tower are bright red.

Minots Ledge Light

Location:

A mile off of Cohasset, Massachusetts

Bids:

1

High current bidder:

$10,000

Claim to fame:

Locals call it the “I Love You” light because of its 1-4-3 flashing signal. 1-4-3 represents the number of letters in the words “I Love You.”

Source: General Services Administration