“I would love it if people were lighthouse geeks like me, and they wanted to know about the history.”
Jeff Gales is a self-described “lighthouse geek” who is so passionate about lighthouses he works with the U.S. Lighthouse Society. The national organization, the only one of its kind, attempts to shine a light on the wonderfully unique buildings that have lit the way for untold numbers of people for thousands of years.
Lighthouses have some of the most captivating architecture and have long captured the fascination of travelers, seafarers, historians and many others drawn to the structures that have been around in one form or another for thousands of years.
Founded in San Francisco in 1983, the society’s purpose is to draw attention to the plight of lighthouses across America which were deteriorating quickly at the time. The organization has chapters around the country that advocate for the restoration and preservation of these historical buildings that have captured the attention of the millions of people who have visited them over the years.
“They’re a special type of historic landmark that evoke emotions out of people, whether you’re drawn to them because of the architecture or because of the beauty of the surroundings or because of the adventure of just climbing and getting to them. That’s a big part of it,” said Gales to AccuWeather. “I think, for most though, it has to do with the sense of preserving history and also the adventure of getting to these spots and the ones you can climb, you know zooming up to the top, and it becomes addictive, it really does.”
“There were never more than around 850 lighthouses in operation at once. However, about 1,500 were constructed in America over the years with the peak occurring in about 1910,” said the U.S. Lighthouse Society. Jeremy D’Entremont, a maritime historian and author who has researched American lighthouses for more than 30 years, told Vice up to 70 percent of the country’s 800 or so lighthouses are still active today although the U.S. Coast Guard has automated most of them, converting many to solar power to save on maintenance and electricity costs.
With the advent of technology including GPS, NOAA’s nautical charts, radar beacons and other navigation aids, many wonders if lighthouses are still needed. But Gales says he has yet to meet a sailor who doesn’t love them. “Every time I talked to a high-ranking official in the military about lighthouses, they always reiterate the fact that they are still needed,” he explained.
Many maritime experts agree that the beautiful buildings are still needed, especially as a visual point of reference that can warn mariners about dangerous shallows and perilous coasts. “Oftentimes, lighthouses mark dangerous points in the water, reefs or shoals or promontories that stick out into the water that people can’t see with the naked eye,” Gales said, adding, “and certainly if your GPS goes down, a lighthouse can definitely be helpful.”
But automation means lighthouse keepers have been relegated to history which has resulted in many of the incredible structures slowly falling into disrepair. “Coastal environments are naturally corrosive to metals, and wind and sand can wreak havoc on any structure that’s along the coast, let alone old ones,” said Gales. He compared lighthouse property to ship ownership, in that both structures can be fixed up but will require costly maintenance and upkeep over the years.
This is where the U.S. Lighthouse Society comes in. Thanks to the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act and the work of preservationists like Gales, the hope is that the historic landmarks dotting America’s coastlines will be maintained for future generations to enjoy.
While baby boomers tend to make up a large portion of lighthouse aficionados, Gales hopes fun initiatives like their Passport Program will help engage a new generation of “lighthouse geeks.” The program allows people to support the preservation of lighthouses by collecting a stamp in their passport book each time they visit a lighthouse.
Gales was hopeful that this effort will preserve the history of lighthouses and allow future generations to get out and enjoy the historical landmarks that they are. “They were built by humans, for the purpose of saving lives and, unfortunately, they need us to save them now,” he said.
Produced in association with AccuWeather
Edited by Judy J. Rotich and Newsdesk Manager
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