Majesty Above the Sea
Standing sentinel above the granite cliffs of midcoast Maine, Pemaquid Point Lighthouse has lit the way for mariners for over 175 years. Sited just to the west of Johns Bay, at the east end of Muscongus Bay, its distinctive white flash every six seconds has been an enduring beacon for all.
Originally commissioned in 1827, by then president John Quincy Adams, not too many years later the tower began to crumble. Legend has it that the contractor used the readily available sea water to mix the mortar, so it was rebuilt in 1835 and has stood till this day. Yet now the tower is in in trouble. Not only from its age, but an argument has begun over who shall maintain it. And this should not be. The tower belongs to all the people. Not only in the state of Maine, but in the US, to everyone who has photographed it, every artist who has painted it, everyone who has been married in its shadow, and the tens of thousands of visitors from around the world who haved climbed its 39 steps to gaze at the gem-like Fresnel lens, and to view the distant islands from its top.
After the US Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Service in 1939, Pemaquid Point Light was automated (the first one in Maine to be switched to electricity in fact) and the last keeper went on to other duties. When he left, it was virtually shuttered and visited by the Coast Guard three or four times a year, mostly to change the light bulb. The government did sell the land surrounding the tower to the Town of Bristol, which eventually developed it into Lighthouse Park , started the Fisherman's Museum in the lower level of the former Lightkeeper's house, and rented out the apartment above the house to the public. There is currently a two dollar per person fee to visit the park during the season. This money goes to pay the minimum wage salaries of those working the gate, maintaining restroom facilities, and mowing the lawn. The excess they collect stays with the Park Board.
Beginning in 2001, after the passage of the National Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, several lighthouses were passed on to non profit groups and municipal entities willing to maintain them. Pemaquid Point wasn't excessed at this time, but the Coast Guard had allegedly contacted theTown of Bristol at an earlier time (maybe 1993, according to town administrator Kristine Poland) to see if they would like to be responsible for maintaining the tower. This was refused by the town, citing the cost and liability concerns. No one can seem to remember this now, and the Coast Guard's lighthouse record keeping is notoriously lax on things like lighthouses (not a priority), and even more so since they've become responsible for Homeland Security. Sometime in 2001 or 2002, the well-known and respected American Lighthouse Foundation acquired the lease for maintenance of the tower. Shortly after, the tower was given a new coat of paint by a chapter of ALF, the New England Lighthouse Lovers.
In late 2002 and early 2003, several things happened to bring the lighthouse tower to the forefront of the public mind. One was its selection by popular vote to appear on the state quarter to be released in May 2003, and the other was the formation of a chapter of ALF, a small group of volunteers calling themselves the Friends of Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, led by first president Dick Melville, who spruced up the base of the tower, added some safety features and opened the tower for climbingto the public for the first time in its 175+ year history. At first it was only opened a few afternoons a week, but as the group got more organized, it expanded to include every afternoon. The first year saw about 6,000 people make the trip to the top for the expansive views of the Atlantic, the islands, and of course to view a working Fourth Order Fresnel lens. The next year the hours were again expanded, and it was open from late morning to park closing time. Finally, in the 2006 season, in an effort to work with the town, who complained that the lighthouse wasn't open when the park was open, it was staffed from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily. Now, in its four seasons of operation, there have been more than 75,000 visitors who have climbed.
From the beginning, there was a lot of tension between the park board and the FPPL president, with the park board feeling the FPPL was taking donations away from the Fisherman's Museum. But the FPPL did not receive any of the monies from the gate fee, then or now. Nor did they (FPPL) receive any funding from the town budget, even though climbing the tower became a major attraction for the park, and brought in more and more visitors.
Right now, the exterior of the tower is looking at over $133,000 in renovations. Interior work will be running over $12,000 and to repair the lantern room and lens, it's estimated to cost over $155,000. Who will pay for this? By my calculations, that totals to over $300,000. That's a lot of money for the Bristol taxpayers (of which I am one) to cover.