Digest>Archives> April 1997

The National Lightship Trust Is Born.

By Jerry Roberts


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Lightship WLV-613 Nantucket II, "The Last ...

Like the rest of you who read this publication I love lighthouses and support all national, regional, and local efforts to save those that are in danger of being lost. As a child I grew up near the Tawas Point lighthouse in Michigan and now for the past twenty years, on the East Coast, I've sailed boats and navigated ships past nearly every lighthouse and beacon from Portland Head, Maine to Galveston, Texas. But somewhere along the way the plight of the endangered American lightship has gotten under my skin. Along with a growing number of fellow lightship fanatics, we've formed a nonprofit organization called the National Lightship Trust. Our goal is simple; to help make the maritime and lighthouse community more lightship conscious, to find secure homes for lightships in jeopardy, and above all, to proclaim that the time has come to draw the line and say that no more lightships should be gutted, scrapped or sunk. As I write this, there are only fifteen US lightships left out of 179 built between 1820 and 1952. When the last American lightship, WLV-613, weighed anchor and surrendered Nantucket Light Station to a giant automated buoy in 1983, sixty three years of proud service came to an end. As most of the lightships were being replaced by towers or large navigational buoys in the 1970s, they were donated by the Coast Guard to museums and civic groups to remind succeeding generations of the important maritime heritage they represent. However, as many of these groups ran out of steam, several ships were sold into private hands, or scrapped. Even now some maritime historians will argue that there are too many lightships out there to worry about.

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The LV-118 Lightship silted in at Lewes Delaware. ...

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The Lightship Nantucket 112 cruising up the ...

As recently as 1994 the state of New Jersey sank the Diamond Shoal lightship, WLV-189, built in 1949, without remorse as part of their artificial reef program. Obviously it wasn't their job to look after our national heritage. Just last year, Liberty Landing Marina in New Jersey, located within sight of the Statue of Liberty, bought the old Winter Quarter lightship, LV-107, built in 1923, and proceeded to totally gut her historic interior to make room for their dockmaster's office and shower rooms for boaters. The ship's bridge was torn out to build a snack bar and hot dog stand. The wheel and binnacle now decorate the owner's shore-side office. After the fact, they claimed they had no idea the ship was historic. And just last winter the LV-84, built in 1907 and one of the oldest remaining American lightships, was allowed to sink in Brooklyn's Erie Basin through neglect. Sadly I know of at least three other lightships that have uncertain futures at best. Too many lightships?

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Shown here is the Ambrose Lighthsip in 1954 as a ...

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In this rare photo the Nantucket LV 112 is docked ...

The National Lightship Trust was formed this past January in the wake of a very traumatic experience that happened to the Nantucket II, WLV-613, the last US lightship built. The ship had been owned by the not-for-profit organization New England Historic Seaport in Boston since the Coast Guard donated it to them in 1983. But last year the group was amalgamated into another nonprofit organization, Schools For Children. SFC got the ship and office space in a nearby building. As it turned out, the building seems to have been what they really wanted. They sold the 613 to a broker and ship liquidator without even notifying the maritime community. They got the ship for free, but they sold it down the river, depriving others from having the chance to save it and keep it in the public trust. The liquidator put it on the open market for 110K, which doomed the ship to being bought by a restaurateur or being sold for its hull. This is our heritage, yours and mine.

Luckily we found a "lightship angel" who offered to donate 60k to SFC in order to save the ship. But Ted Willson of Schools For Children, Chadwick (the broker) and National Ship Liquidators all declined. Too complicated, they said. Oh, they took the money, but they wouldn't take it as a donation. The 20k tax deduction could have gone into needed repairs to the ship, but they didn't care. It wasn't their problem. They just threatened to sell the ship to another buyer who intended to cut its mast off if we didn't come up with the cash within four days. Well, we did, thank you. But the ship is still in jeopardy. She needs to be hauled out for a hull inspection and repairs, she needs a permanent home, corporate support, and volunteer help. We'll save this ship if we get some help, but what really bugs me is that Schools For Children sold a public trust vessel which they got for free. I don't understand why they still hold a not-for-profit status. It is an insult to all those working hard to preserve our heritage.

Too many lightships? Imagine if there were only fifteen lighthouses, or tugboats left in the entire United States. Yet in the past decade we have been losing lightships at an alarming rate. We can't afford this. Obviously, those of you who care about lighthouses can understand why we should care about lightships as well. After all, they served the same purpose, were administered by the same organizations, the Lighthouse Service and the Coast Guard, and were crewed by the same breed of people. Of course the big difference was that lightships were anchored over the horizon, out of sight of the painters and poets who have romanticized lighthouses. They have become the forgotten orphans of the maritime community.

Now these ships, whose crews doggedly stayed out on station even through the worst hurricanes ever to sweep our coasts, need our help. Their stout hulls and mighty mushroom anchors can't save them from neglect, shortsightedness, human greed and treachery. That's what the National Lightship Trust is all about, to identify lightships that need help, to find qualified organizations that would welcome a lightship in need, and to tell the story of lightships and their crews. We will also collect photos, paintings, plans, memorabilia, and living histories of lightship crewmen toward a goal of someday creating a national lightship museum.

By the way, there is some good news, aside from the 613 being snatched from the jaws of doom. The nation's most celebrated lightship, Nantucket, LV-112, built in 1936, has just been transferred to the HMS Rose Foundation in Bridgeport, Connecticut, from its previous home at the Intrepid Museum in NYC. This transfer was an example of the proper transfer of stewardship from one nonprofit to another for the grand price of one US dollar. In Bridgeport the ship will be open to the public and will eventually embark on port calls throughout New England. The ship is fully operational and we are seeking members and volunteers in the Connecticut area to help build a strong future for this, the nation's most famous lightship. For more information call 203 335-1433.

We are also involved in the fates of LV-118 in Lewes Delaware and WLV-612 (also in Boston). If you are interested in learning more about The National Lightship Trust, or in getting involved one way or another, you can find us on the internet at, "http://www.lightship-trust.org". You can e-mail me at roberts@interport.com, or write us at National Lightship Trust, P.O. Box 778, Times Square, New York NY 10108. Of course you'll be hearing more from us in Lighthouse Digest where we'll try to keep you updated with the latest lightship news. Don't hesitate to let us know any lightship information you have. We need all of you to help serve as our eyes and ears. The bottom line is, we need the lighthouse community to embrace lightships, because when it comes down to keeping the last lights shining, we're all in the same boat!

This story appeared in the April 1997 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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