PUBLISHED: 6:33 PM on Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Preserving and restoring Southeast Alaska's lighthouses
JUNEAU - Dave Benton was flipping through the newspaper eleven years ago when a one-line classified caught his attention: "Lighthouses for lease."

A few months and formalities later, Benton and his wife, along with some friends, found themselves as members of the Alaska Lighthouse Association, with a historic lighthouse on the tip of Admiralty Island to care for.

The group is now a decade into a restoration project that has attracted dozens of volunteers. And Point Retreat is not the only local lighthouse getting a makeover. Throughout Southeast Alaska, lighthouse enthusiasts are taking an active role in restoring old lighthouses and shaping them into educational, historic and recreational landmarks.

There are nine functioning lighthouses in Southeast Alaska, from Tree Point, near the southernmost point of mainland Alaska, to Eldred Rock in the middle of Lynn Canal.

Most of them were built in the early 1900's when the federal government was responsible for their upkeep and civilian lighthouse keepers were stationed at each site.

Jay Beedle photo
  Mountain tops glisten with fresh snow near the Point Retreat Lighthouse, located on the northern tip of Admiralty Island.
In 1939, the care and keeping of the country's lighthouses was turned over to the Coast Guard. Gradually, the lights became automated, which eliminated the need for lighthouse keepers.

Once the sites were unmanned, they quickly fell into disrepair. With insufficient funds to maintain the lighthouses, in 1997 the Coast Guard introduced a program of leasing the lighthouses out to non-profit organizations which would take responsibility for the upkeep of the buildings themselves.

The lighthouse transfers have not all been easy, and some of the lighthouses have not yet been leased out. Some sit on or next to Forest Service land, and land issues are still complicating the transfer of some of the sites. Groups who were awarded leases often ended up with more work that they'd expected.

Katie Spielberger photo
  Eldred Rock Lighthouse
"When we got the place, it was pretty much in shambles," Benton said. "People love lighthouses but there just isn't very much money (for restoration). Everyone's finding out how expensive it is to maintain these things. There's a reason the Coast Guard (gave them up)."

Lighthouses are most needed in hostile, remote areas, subject to violent winds and saltwater erosion. The dramatic environments that so quickly weather the buildings also attract people who will save the lighthouses.

"It's about the connection with people working in such an amazing environment," said Benton. "(The ocean) is a deep-seated, visceral place. (At a lighthouse) you're on land, but you really feel the connection with people out there."

Jay Beedle photo
  Sentinel Island Lighthouse
Point Retreat is the only lighthouse in Southeast Alaska with a keeper who stays throughout the winter. Benton and his wife relieve the keeper for a few weeks every winter. In December, they adorn the buildings with Christmas lights and passing boats show their appreciation by sounding their horns.

Enduring appeal

Lighthouse associations rely on dozens of grants, private donations and dozens of volunteers. In an effort to make the lighthouses pay for themselves, there are plans to turn several of them, including Point Retreat, into self-serve bed-and-breakfasts.

Lighthouses need roofers and plumbers and painters. Some of the maintenance chores are as simple as mowing the lawn or picking up shells that birds have dropped on the concrete. Yet something about these structures inspires people to spend their weekends performing these tasks. Some are lighthouse fanatics, some are maritime history buffs, and some have a hard time explaining why they are so attracted to the lights.

Jayleen Beedle photo
  Point Retreat Lighthouse
When Jennifer Klein spends the night at Five Finger Lighthouse during the summer, she stays up until darkness falls. Every night, she waits to see the light shine out from the diamond windows and spread out across the water, the trees and the clouds.

"It's the idea that you're right at the precipice of danger and at the same time there's this solid safety of a light in a building," said Klein, who is president of the Juneau Lighthouse Association, the organization which holds the lease to Five Finger Lighthouse. "It's romantic. It's part of our spirit to be sort of daring and at the same time protective."

Five Finger Lighthouse sits on Five Finger Island at the intersection of Frederick Sound and Stephen's Passage about 65 miles south of Juneau and 40 miles north of Petersburg. The site is already being used as a weather-reporting station for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Klein mentions other possibilities as well, such as opening up a marine research base on the site, which is located in one of the richest humpback whale feeding grounds in Southeast.

Indeed, increasing the potential uses for the lighthouses may be key to their survival.

Charles Westmoreland photo
  Five Finger Lighthouse, located between Juneau and Petersburg on Five Finger Islands.
Old light, new uses

When Steve Lanwermeyer first visited Cape Decision Lighthouse on the southern tip of Kuiu Island, he wondered about the end goal of the restoration. Preserving a historical building sounded good, but he also thought, "This would be a great place to start a school."

Now, as director of the Cape Decision Institute and a board member of the Cape Decision Lighthouse Society, Lanwermeyer is working to do just that. So far, he has begun working with National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) programs at the site. Eventually, he aims to have the facilities open all summer for high school groups and undergraduate and graduate research and studies.

"Our goal is to have the facilities there open throughout the summer season," Lanwermeyer said, "both for interested public, commercial fisherman, bush communities, and any school group interested in coming and learning about it."

Lanwermeyer says whenever he's away from the lighthouse, he can't stop thinking about coming back. He believes that if he can get more people to feel the same way the lighthouse will endure.

"This whole thing is about increasing the number of people who have a vested interest in Cape Decision," Lanwermeyer said. "We really want to expand the number of people who visit the place because it's the kind of place that once you're exposed to it's hard to stop thinking about."

Cape Decision sits at one of the few entry points into the Inside Passage from the open ocean. Ships returning from sea would look to the light to know they were back in safe waters. Lanwermeyer mentioned one of the organization's volunteers who was so moved by the lighthouse he named his boat "Cape Decision."

"(Cape Decision Lighthouse) has been around for 75 years, you have to wonder how many people have been impacted by it," Lanwermeyer said.

As long as they stand, lighthouses will continue guiding mariners to safety. And thanks to the dedication of lighthouse associations and their volunteers, the number of people impacted will spread - like a light from a cupola.