In the last ten years or so, the Coast Guard has been in the process of divesting itself of the lighthouses that they no longer want to maintain. Some lighthouses have gone to nonprofits and some have been sold at auction to the highest bidder. In the months and years ahead, more United States lighthouses will get new owners. However, new ownership does not guarantee that a lighthouse will be restored, maintained, or even saved. Although there are so-called “safe guards” built into place for oversight, there will never be enough government backbone to handle the monitoring process.
While many of the lighthouses will see their fate determined in a positive manner, it is highly likely that others will end up worse off than they ever would have been otherwise. Some of the new nonprofits are nothing more than a person or family that created the nonprofit to
obtain ownership of the lighthouse. These nonprofits and the other new private owners could, in the years down the road, easily suffer from financial problems, family disputes and estate battles that could tie up the lighthouse in the courts for years.
Divesting itself of lighthouses is not something new for the government; it’s been going on for years. In the 1930s, the government, much to the outrage of the public, either auctioned off or sold a number of lighthouses that it no longer needed. Some fell into good hands, others did not.
In 1939, Yankee Magazine attempted to follow up on lighthouses that had been sold in the previous few years and they reported mixed findings. They found that many of the new owners preferred strict privacy and
refused to be interviewed or allow their name to be used. Yankee reported that one man moved into a lighthouse for three weeks, caught a cold, and hadn’t been back since. Another, W.R. Angell, president of Continental Motors, purchased the North Manitou Island Lighthouse strictly
for business purposes and had no romantic concern for the lighthouse. Yankee then reported that still other lighthouses were purchased and resold so any times that they never did catch up with the present day (1939) owners.
Little could the folks at Yankee have realized that years later, as we reported in the December 2009 issue of Lighthouse Digest, the North Manitou Island in Michigan, once owned by a wealthy American, would be lost to the pages of time through neglect. They also could not have predicted that the new owner of Crabtree Ledge Lighthouse in Maine, after the 1930s harrowing experience on his first visit, would never return to the lighthouse, and it would eventually collapse from neglect. In the months ahead, we will tell you the stories of some of the other lighthouses that fell into private ownership in the 1930s.
However, one of the new lighthouse owners of that time, Phelan Beale, a lawyer in the financial district of New York and counsel for the New York Cotton Exchange and other institutions, had no qualms about talking about his experience in that 1939 interview. He said he had purchased the Cedar Island Lighthouse, at the channel entrance to Sag Harbor, Long Island, New York, because he did not want anyone else to own it who might be a nuisance in bothering his 4,000-acre game preserve. He offered the government $2,002.02 for the lighthouse and was surprised that they actually accepted his offer. However, he never expected the fury of interest that his purchase of a lighthouse would receive.
The newspapers in New York and around the country had a field day, and were able to fill their pages with great and sometimes bizarre stories for their readers. Some speculated that Beale had discovered the whereabouts of Captain Kidd’s hidden treasure, and others said he must have been smitten by a broken love interest and wanted seclusion. Almost immediately, his game and shooting preserve was swarming with curiosity seekers. Even the Coast Guard took an unusual interest in monitoring the comings and goings, thinking perhaps that the buried treasure might indeed have been found or that some illegal activities were taking place on the island. Beale had never expected any of this when he sent in his original bid to purchase the lighthouse.
Beale received letters from every state in the union and even some foreign countries, one from as far away as Formosa, which is now known as Taiwan. Most of these letters wanted the job of being a lighthouse keeper. Apparently the people had not read the stories closely — there was no longer a light in the tower. Those who read the story correctly wanted to be caretakers. But many of the letters were of a different nature. Many were appeals for financial aid from people who thought if Beale could afford to buy a lighthouse, he could afford to help them out. Many charitable organizations also wrote asking for a donation. Some of the letters were pathetic, some were ridiculous, and some were even tragic. Children wrote and asked to be adopted and a large number of women sent photos and offers of marriage, even though Beale was already married. Some letters admonished him for wasting his money on a worthless lighthouse when he could use that money for the benefit of others.
One persistent writer, George R. Pontz, kept up a six month letter writing campaign begging for the job of lighthouse keeper, saying that the fresh air would aid his recovery from a gas attack suffered in the war while serving in the army under General John “Black Jack” Pershing at the 1918 battle of Chateau Thierry against German forces in France.
Later, federal agents visited Beale to question him about his acquaintance with Mr. Pontz, who was an accused murderer and con man who was on the run from the law. One of his schemes was to get letters from wealthy people and then forge their signatures on checks that he would then cash. In searching through the stacks of correspondence which Beale had received from people all over the world, the agents found the letters from Pontz, which had a return address of a rooming house in the “Hell’s Kitchen” area of New York City.
When Beale was asked if he knew whether the man had ever been captured, he replied, “I did not ask. I acquired sufficient woes when I became a lighthouse purchaser, without inviting more.”
This story appeared in the
April 2010 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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