The federal government recently filed a lawsuit against the Huron City Museums in Port Austin, Michigan for the return of the 3rd order Fresnel lens that was once in the tower of the Pointe Aux Barques Lighthouse in Port Hope, Michigan.
The Coast Guard claims the museum has illegal possession of the 900-pound lens that was made in the 1800s by Henry Lepaute and is commonly referred to as a ‘Fresnel’ lens; named after the original inventor. When installed at the lighthouse, the lens probably cost the government around $2,000, but, in 1998, the Coast Guard placed a value on the now historic lens at $550,000.
Sometime in the 1950s, the Coast Guard removed the lens from the Pointe Aux Barques Lighthouse and put it in storage. Finally, it came out of storage and on January 2, 1970 the Coast Guard loaned it to the Grice House Museum in Harbor Beach, Michigan. However, when the Grice House Museum was given the 4th order lens that had been removed from the Harbor Beach Lighthouse, in 1987, apparently under the belief that they were not allowed to have two lighthouses lenses, they gave the Pointe Aux Barques lens to the Huron City Museums.
Now, over 40 years later, the Coast Guard says that they never approved the transfer and that the Grice House Museum never had any authority to transfer the lens. Apparently the Coast Guard told the Huron City Museums that it would retrieve the lens as far back as 2010, but the museum refused to give up possession.
The lawsuit also claims that the lens, although on display in a museum atmosphere, is not secure against vandalism or possible theft, nor is it in an environmental controlled facility. Additionally, since the museum is rarely open to the public, the terms of the original loan agreement to the Grice House Museum are being violated, because the lens is supposed to be available for public viewing on a regular basis. The lawsuit also demands that the Huron City Museums pay for the removal and transportation of the lens back to the Coast Guard.
The lens was given to the Grice House Museum before the Pointe Aux Barques Lighthouse was restored and opened to the public as a museum. Many historians now believe that the best place for the lens would be back at the Pointe Aux Barques Lighthouse where it was once in use. However, it would also seem appropriate that both museums should be thanked by the Coast Guard for caring for the lens for past four decades.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2013 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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