The Justice Department, on behalf of the United States Coast Guard, has filed a lawsuit in federal court for the return of two Fresnel lenses that, up until a few years ago, they did not know that they even still existed. One is from Michigan’s no longer standing Belle Isle Lighthouse and the other is from Maine’s Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse.
In fact, the Belle Isle Lighthouse has been gone for so long that no one seems to even be clear when the lens was removed from its tower. It was over 50 years ago when the historic and beautiful 1882 Belle Isle Lighthouse was demolished to make room for a new Coast Guard Station. At that time, the government didn’t give a hoot about saving or restoring the lighthouse, and they probably weren’t too concerned about saving the artifacts therein.
There are a number of stories about what happened to the Belle Isle lens. Some thought that it had simply been destroyed as happened at other lighthouses such as at Michigan’s Middle Island Lighthouse where first one panel was stolen and later other bits and pieces of the lens were found on the grounds around the lighthouse. Another example was at Michigan’s Crisp Point Lighthouse where many broken pieces of its lens were found in the sand near the lighthouse, giving the impression that the lens may have been pitched from the tower.
Belle Isle Lighthouse had been automated in 1929, and according to the Coast Guard, the lens from Belle Isle was removed and put in storage in 1935 or 1936 inside the base of the nearby Livingston Memorial Lighthouse. But we know that this is incorrect, because Lighthouse Digest has photographs in our archives that were taken by the Detroit News on January 4, 1937 showing that the lens was still in the lantern of Belle Isle Lighthouse. The Coast Guard claims that two lenses that were in storage at the Livingston Memorial Lighthouse were stolen by thieves who broke into the lighthouse in 1980. But, the Coast Guard curator said that she really does not know if one of the stolen lenses was indeed from the Belle Isle Lighthouse. The Belle Isle Lighthouse was demolished in 1943.
Mike Vogel of the Buffalo Lighthouse Association who created a data base of Fresnel lenses said he came across a lens that was sitting next to a person’s fireplace as décor. John Polacsek, the retired curator of the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle, said that at one time the Coast Guard was selling barrels of miscellaneous crap, and in some of those barrels were a number of lighthouses lenses.
And then there’s the mystery of the giant 2nd order Fresnel lens that was once in Maine’s Monhegan Island Lighthouse. The only story around is a second-hand story which claims that after the lens was in storage in South Portland, Maine for a while, the Coast Guard base commander ordered it destroyed, a story that does not hold water with some lighthouse people. In 1946 when the Coast Guard removed the 1st order Fresnel lens from the Highland Lighthouse on Cape Cod, rather than remove the lens carefully, they destroyed the lens; a fragment of it is now on display at the museum at the lighthouse. Then there’s the case of the 4th order Fresnel lens that was removed from Maine’s Little River Lighthouse in 1968, never to be seen again. There are other mysterious lens disappearance stories that also can be told.
Exactly how Steve Gronow acquired the Belle Isle Lighthouse lens is unclear, but he obviously purchased it from somebody, and he has been its watchful caretaker for many years. The Coast Guard is not accusing him of stealing the lenses, but they do claim that the lenses are government property, even if the government discarded them at one time. Based on this theory, one preservationist said, “Every item purchased at a yard sale or antique store, could now be reclaimed by the ancestors of the people who once owned it.”
Interestingly, this past September 25 the Lannan Ship Model Gallery in Boston was advertising an 1881 4th order Fresnel lens that it was going to be auctioning off in Lot 445 of the auction. There was no indication given as to where the lens might have come from; information that may not be known. They estimated its valued between 40 to 50 thousand dollars.
Many preservationists state that Gronow has been a private savior of lighthouse lenses and other lighthouse artifacts, many that no one even knew that still existed. In fact he has a number of lenses from other countries that most likely would have been destroyed had he not saved them.
The history of the Fresnel lens that was once in Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse can be traced back to the owner of Automatic Signal, who removed the lens from the tower in the 1950s. He replaced the lens with a modern optic when the breakwater was built to the lighthouse that had previously rested by itself out in the water. His widow said the lens was given to him by the Coast Guard officer in charge at the time. After he died, she eventually sold it to Steve Gronow, who operates the Maritime Exchange Museum and leases out artifacts to other museums. Gronow never made any secret of the fact that he had the lens from Spring Point Ledge Light; after all, he had legally purchased it, fair and square. On the other hand, perhaps the folks at the Spring Point Ledge Trust in Maine would like to have the lens back. But, if they do get it back, they will be required to follow the Coast Guard’s strict guidelines for its display and insure the lens for an exorbitant amount.
According to an Associated Press report, Gronow argues that the government is just trying bully a preservationist now that they (the government) realize how valuable the Fresnel lenses can be.
However, the Justice Department claims that, under the Coast Guard Authorization Ace of 1996, the agency “shall retain all right, title, and interest of the United States in and to any historical artifact, including any lens or lantern that is associated with the lighthouses.” This is apparently the same broad engaging law that the Coast Guard curator used in 2011 when she used it to literally intimidate the West Quoddy Head Light Keeper’s Association in Lubec, Maine, demanding that the lighthouse hat worn by lighthouse keeper Howard “Bob” Gray that had been on display at the West Quoddy Head Lighthouse be returned to the Coast Guard. To his day, the family of Howard “Bob” Gray, including his daughter, claims that the hat is their personal property, and they want it on permanent display at the West Quoddy Head Lighthouse where he was the lighthouse keeper from 1934 to 1952.
Obviously, the final outcome of the battle over the Fresnel lenses will have to be determined in a court of law; it is likely to be a long drawn-out battle. But the saga of the lowly lighthouse keeper’s hat may never be resolved, and for all anyone knows, it may remain stored away somewhere in a box, as it has been for the past 5 years, and may never be seen again.
This story appeared in the
Nov/Dec 2016 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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