Lights Bring New Life to Old Lighthouses

The returning of lights to original lighthouses is becoming more popular

Story and photos by Eva Mizer

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Skeletal structures were erected around Lake Champlain in the 1930s to replace the original lighthouses.

Rob Clark gets out of the car and walks off the gravel drive onto the cool grass now wet with dew. It’s dusk, and the wind on the lake calms to a whisper as the stars start to make their nightly appearance in the sky. He walks over the lawn to a weathered yellow house with a boarded porch and adjoining stone tower. Suddenly, a bright yellow glow flashes for a moment before being extinguished as fast as it was lit.

Over the generations, lighthouses on Lake Champlain have lit the ways for passing cargo, passenger, and military vessels. While not very developed in the seventeeth century, the opening of the Champlain created greater access to the lake, increasing traffic. “What happened when those canals opened was the lake really exploding with traffic and watercraft,” Art Cohen says. “This necessitated a 24/7 type of operation, which is why the lighthouses were authorized, funded, and built— because there was so much public demand and need.” Although accessing the lake made shipping easier, ships could not keep up with the demand. “You had to work even at night, and the lighthouses were designed to give the mariners a path they could follow even at night from one lake to another.” This ‘interstate’ of the waterways secured the lighthouse's future until the twentieth century.

In the early 1930s, many lighthouses were retired and the light was moved to newly-installed skeleton railed fixtures popular at the time. However, decades of frigid winters, hot summers, and rust buildup weakened the structures to the point of instability. When time came to replace many of the old structures, the Coast Guard was faced with the expensive task of building a new skeletal structure and lighting system. While still in the planning stage, one lighthouse owner had an idea.

An opportunity to relight the family’s prized lighthouses was too good to pass up.

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Lenses for lighthouse lights are the key to the their brightness. They funnel light through specific points, creating a powerful beam.

The Clark family, consisting of Lucky Clark, his wife, and their son, long had a passion for their lighthouses. Their family had a close connection with the lighthouses even before they bought them in La Isle de Motte and Windmill Point, so an opportunity to relight the family’s prized lighthouses was too good to pass up. However, relighting the two houses was not as simple as a flick of a switch. “If an owner was interested, they would have to call us, and [then] we would come and look it over for an assessment,” petty officer Fred Walsh explained, “Then we have to run some paperwork through the right offices and send out notices to mariners about the change before anything can really happen.”

An advantage of the switch would be the lowered initial cost and the low cost of maintaining the light in that location. Because the lighthouses are privately owned, the owners care for the lighthouses, this saves the Coast Guard the burden of maintaining the structures in addition to the lights. When the Clark family took on the challenge of restoring the light to the original lighthouse, Bob and his father Lucky designed a solar-powered battery-charging system for the light. Each day, a solar panel collects light and stores it in a car battery. At night and during dark, stormy weather, the battery powers the light, which stretches far out on the lake.

“What people don’t realize is that the bulbs we use in the lighthouses aren’t much different than the bulbs they use in their car's brake lights.”

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Every lighthouse has its own distinct time marker to help mariners identify which lighthouse is which and therefore, their position.

The light itself is a feat of effective engineering. Clark holds up a bulb that is not much bigger than two inches. “What people don’t realize is that the bulbs we use in the lighthouses aren’t much different than the bulbs they use in their car's brake lights,” Clark explains with a smile. “They think the lens is the actual bulb, so they are really surprised when they find out it’s not.” Clark puts down the bulb and goes into a different room where old lenses are kept in storage. He pulls out a clear, rather heavy, lens and points to the inside at what appears to be a complicated rotating system of multiple bulbs. “These lights were designed so that people could leave for awhile and if a bulb burned out, the sensor would recognize that and change it to the next bulb,” Clark explains.  This technology, while not new, assured greater ease for lighthouse maintenance workers, and allowed maintenance to be performed at more periodic intervals, saving time and money while delivering consistency to those that rely on the light the most.

The addition of new technology to an old tradition has spurred a rekindling of maritime heritage and pride in the North Country. For Windmill Point, Isle de Monte, and many other lighthouses in the area, the relighting is a symbol of rejuvenation and resolution. The relighting of the area's lighthouses in their sturdy and timeless forms ensures that their history and significance will not fade like the light of the sun at dusk, but will shine as far and as bright as the blinking light over stormy waters.

What is your favorite lighthouse to visit?

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