Q: Lighthouses are especially useful to sailors in stormy weather and foggy conditions, but there is nothing quite like a clear summer day to appreciate them in their natural setting. There are nearly 50 lighthouses preserved in the National Park System, and one park accounts for the most by far, with nine. Do you know which park? Hint: It’s neither on the East Coast nor the West Coast.
A: The National Park Service cares for nearly 50 lighthouses, according to the agency’s Maritime Heritage Program. Of those, nine are located within Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin, making it the national park site with the most lighthouses. Isle Royale National Park is a distant second with four, and Acadia National Park, Cape Cod National Seashore and Cape Hatteras National Seashore are tied for third with three each.
The East Coast accounts for almost half of all Park Service lighthouses, and thanks in large part to the Apostle Islands collection, Lake Superior boasts more than twice as many as the West Coast. Together, national park lighthouses represent only a fraction of all lighthouses in the country, though. Jeff Gales of the U.S. Lighthouse Society said there are more than 600 left in the United States.
The Park Service’s role extends beyond the lighthouses located in national parks. Even when they stop fulfilling their primary function as navigational aids, lighthouses retain historic and cultural value. To preserve that heritage, Congress passed the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act in 2000. The act created a process for the U.S. Coast Guard to transfer ownership of lighthouses it deems no longer necessary to other federal agencies, state and local governments, or other organizations, provided that they preserve the lighthouses and make them accessible to the general public.
The Park Service reviews the applications and makes a recommendation as to whether the transfer should proceed. If no application is successful, the General Services Administration may sell the lighthouse to private buyers. By the end of 2014, the program had transferred 72 lights to public entities and sold 41 others for a total of $5.6 million. Interested? Learn more about the program on the Park Service website.
(For the record, Congress also passed a resolution declaring Aug. 7, 1989 “National Lighthouse Day” to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the bill establishing federal control over lighthouses. The effort to create a recurring national lighthouse day is ongoing.)
You can’t buy the lighthouses at Apostle Islands, but you can visit most of them. In his book “Great American Lighthouses,” the late lighthouse expert — and longtime Park Service historian — F. Ross Holland Jr. described Apostle Islands’ light stations as “the largest and finest single collection of lighthouses in the country.” All of them were built in the 19th century, and some are still in service today (only ruins remain of the old LaPointe lighthouse, but all others are still standing). The diversity of structures includes keepers’ dwellings, fog signal buildings and boathouses. Guided tours are available for some of the lighthouses from mid-June to September, but be aware that lake conditions can make landing particularly challenging at several of the islands.
About the author
Nicolas Brulliard Senior Editor
Nicolas is a journalist and former geologist who joined NPCA in November 2015. He writes and edits online content for NPCA and serves as senior editor of National Parks magazine.
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