Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2011

The 3 Rs: Restore, Recycle, Repurpose

By Jerry Biggs


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North America’s lighthouses have been constructed from various materials: wood, brick, rubble stone, granite, marble, tin, aluminum and fiberglass. They were not meant to be moved and were built accordingly. However, the forces of nature dictated that a number of lighthouses, such as Block Island Rhode Island’s Southeast Lighthouse and Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in North Carolina be moved out of harm’s way – and were engineering feats.

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U.S. Life-Saving Stations were constructed of wood, all except one, so that they could be moved when coastal shores eroded or when barrier islands changed shape.

Many of these historic structures were acquired by private owners and/or non-profit groups and municipalities. Many were repurposed and used for personal housing, B & Bs, restaurants, hostels, museums, and city offices. Sadly, some were dismantled and recycled as salvage. The following are examples of one-of-a-kind historic maritime structures and some that have been repurposed.

To the casual observer, a tall Dutch windmill is similar in shape to a lighthouse tower. Windmills in the Netherlands coastal areas were often painted in various colors and designs and often used by Dutch fishermen as day-marks. When the windmills’ sails were set at particular angles, it indicated general weather conditions; sometimes the sail settings communicated social events. It is said that the Dutch used their sails during WW II to communicate in code to outfox their invaders.

All this raised the question: could a windmill be converted into a lighthouse? Windmill “experts” said that concept was preposterous. As it turned out, there was (and still is) a lighthouse at Prescott, Ontario on the St. Lawrence River, opposite the Ogdensburg, New York lighthouse. The tower was originally built as a windmill at the site of the infamous 1838 Battle of the Windmill.

The Canadian government converted the conveniently located windmill into an aid to navigation for ships coming to and going from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and for busy traffic through the 1000 Islands region and Lake Ontario.

New York’s Tibbetts Point Lighthouse, at Cape Vincent, was erected on the western tip of a stubby, scenic peninsula as sort of a tall traffic light announcing the gateway into Lake Ontario from the Seaway. It was originally repurposed as a hostel where bikers could bunk overnight. It has since been restored into a showcase lighthouse museum.

South of eastern New York is the Garden State – New Jersey. It has the most U.S. Life-Saving stations in the United States – forty–one. One of those, Tom’s River, was restored and repurposed to be a town hall. Also in that area resides Howard Koslow, the artist who illustrated all of the U.S. Postal Service Lighthouse postage stamps.

The vintage image, at first glance, appears to be a railroad depot. It is the only masonry U.S. Life Saving Station. The twin boathouse doors provided immediate access to the water for launching lifeboats. This one-of-a-kind station, similar to those in the United Kingdom later became a restaurant in the Narragansett, Rhode Island resort area.

At the northern end of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge are the Marin Highlands. A circuitous road traverses the Pacific ponderosa of cattle ranches to Point Reyes National Seashore. There are a limited number of lighthouses where visitors look down at a lighthouse, and this is one of them, 304 steps down and, obviously, 304 back up! It is California’s windiest and foggiest place. On a sunny day the site is a dynamic panorama. When winds are 40 MPH or more, there are no tours.

The closest thing to a floating lifeboat station is the land-based 1927 Point Reyes U.S. Coast Guard Station. There are no others. The barracks-like building is a Chatham-style station first used in 1915 when the U.S. Coast Guard succeeded the U.S. Life-Saving Service. This version stored and launched its lifeboats from bays under the building on a railway into the water. The station and boats are totally restored.

Louisville, Kentucky is renowned as the home of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs and as the manufacturing site of Louisville Slugger Baseball Bats. At the other end of the spectrum is the Louisville U.S. Life-Saving Service floating station downtown on the Ohio River. The river separates the states of Indiana and Kentucky and the station is the only inland station, other than those on the Great Lakes. The 1929 station replaced the original 1881 floating station. The only other vessel remotely related is a lightship which is basically a floating lighthouse. The style is not too far removed from the Chatham-type U.S. Life-Saving Stations but the lifeboats are stored and launched from under the station. The only other floating USLSS station was at Boston Harbor. Massachusetts. The Louisville “houseboat” was not powered and had to be towed to duty stations, especially at the Falls of the Ohio, where excursion boats often floundered. Churchill Downs had a monopoly on horsepower.

The nearest lighthouse to Louisville is probably Michigan City, Indiana. But Louisville is home to the Derby City Lights, a Harbor Lights collector club. In acts of generosity, the club donated funds to a couple of lighthouse restoration projects. One of the beneficiaries was Cape St. George Lighthouse near Apalachicola, Florida. Because of erosion, the old light tower fell into the Gulf. Volunteers recovered and cleaned the bricks and replicated the original structure at a sounder site. If not like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Cape St. George Lighthouse was a phenomenal resurfacing from Davy Jones’ Locker.

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This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2011 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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