At moonrise, Lorraine Coyle likes to climb the five flights of stairs to the gallery deck of the lantern room at Borden Flats Lighthome, located 1,500 feet off the coast of Massachusetts. “The flag is flapping in the wind, seagulls fly by at eye level, and there’s nothing like the sound of a foghorn,” says Coyle, a New Yorker and frequent guest at this offshore lighthouse at the mouth of the Taunton River.
Built in 1881, Borden Flats once guided steamships into the bustling textile mill port of Fall River. Now, as one of about 40 lighthouse inns in the United States, it’s a beacon for travelers looking for a unique, secluded stay in a historical setting.
“Once we found out that it was possible to actually stay at a lighthouse, there was no stopping us,” says Coyle, who has stayed at four. She’s not alone in her enthusiasm. The popularity of these accommodations, especially in a time of COVID social distancing, means that places like Borden Flats may already be fully booked for the 2021 season.
Many of these inns are a labor of love on the part of either aficionados, who may have acquired a lighthouse via auction, or of private and public groups that may have even gotten one for free. It’s one of the ways people are working to save lighthouses, which suffer from neglect, erosion and intense weather due to climate change, and their own obsolescence, as mariners turn to other navigational aids.
“There’s a lot of beauty in the sunsets and sunrises and the extreme locations of these lighthouses,” says Nick Korstad, who has bought five to renovate, including Borden Flats. “But for me, the romance is in ensuring that the history of keepers who sacrificed their lives isn’t forgotten. The person who loves that lighthouse is its soul. That’s what shines through the light.”
Awarded for his preservation efforts, Korstad is, in his own way, among the last of the lighthouse keepers.
A well-lit coastline was once a country’s ultimate gesture of welcome for visitors and mariners, a sign of good business and trade. Lightkeepers were romanticized for their rugged independence and often took on heroic roles.
(America’s women lighthouse keepers are finally being seen.)
The ancient world’s most famous lighthouse was built in the third century B.C. in Alexandria, Egypt. In the 19th century, Scottish civil engineer Robert Stevenson, the grandfather of novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, set the standard for lighthouse construction, including inventing intermittent and flashing lights. He built Bell Rock Lighthouse in 1810, now the world’s oldest working offshore lighthouse.
Over the next two centuries, he and his family constructed more than 90 lighthouses, many still standing today. Of his family’s legendary engineering innovations, Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “I might well write books till 1900 and not serve humanity so well.”
With the adoption of the Fresnel lens to magnify light beams for miles, thousands of lighthouses went up in the 1800s to warn boats of danger and guide them to safe harbor.
Outlasting the rising tides
A hundred years ago, the U.S. had about a thousand working lighthouses. Now about 850 remain. (See map above to locate them.)
Lighthouses dropped off as a federal priority once lights became automated via solar power in the mid-20th century. With the advent of GPS, many sat decaying. “We’ll lose a number of lighthouses in the coming decades, especially the ones that are offshore and inaccessible to tourists,” says lighthouse historian Jeremy D’Entremont. “Their importance will continue to fade because of GPS and other electronics.”
Used now by boaters only as a visual reference, these magnificent towers are endangered. “Many still have the original timber, eaves, and gutter systems. If you replace them with thick vinyl siding or PVC, it will just stick out like a sore thumb,” says Korstad, who spends $100,000 a year to maintain his seven-bedroom Big Bay Point Lighthouse Bed & Breakfast, the country’s first lighthouse inn. Propped up on a four-mile sandstone peninsula, Big Bay Point reigns over an emerald green section of Lake Superior and is one of 124 lighthouses (down from 247) left in Michigan, the state with the most of these beacons.
(The Great Lakes—North America’s greatest resource—is at risk.)
The largest regional concentration of lights, numbering around 200, can be found along New England’s rocky coast, including another offshore accommodation, Maine’s Goose Rocks Lighthouse. About 33 lighthouses—ones that haven’t already been moved, submerged, or replaced by fixed light poles—sit on the Chesapeake Bay, where water levels have risen faster than the global average.
Others dot the Florida panhandle and the craggy west coast, like Oregon’s boutique Heceta Head Lighthouse Bed & Breakfast and New Dungeness Lighthouse, where guests sleep in a National Wildlife Refuge on the tip of the longest sand spit in North America.
The National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000 has allowed many lighthouses to be offloaded, while still staying active. They’re transferred from the U.S. Coast Guard to local and state municipalities or nonprofits for free through the National Park Service. If there are no takers, they’re auctioned off to private individuals.
After lighthouses are transferred or sold, the Coast Guard has the right to continue running all active lights, but it’s absolved of the responsibility of caring for the often decaying lighthouses themselves. At any time, the Coast Guard can take back the lights that are transferred at no cost, and there’s a laundry list of preservation requirements to which the caretaker groups must adhere.
“With limited funds and the cumulative effect of decades of neglect, along with changes in the sea and its intensity, the battle is going to prove insurmountable for many wave-swept lighthouses and for those clinging to coastal perches,” says Bob Trapani, overseer of an organization committed to saving lighthouses, the American Lighthouse Foundation.
Groups have banded together to restore these structures, not only operating them as inns but also as museums to offset costs. They’ve moved them back from the shoreline, including North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras, the country’s tallest, and Massachusetts’ Gay Head Light.
(This lesser-known cape in Massachusetts exudes maritime history and magical light.)
“We have come a long way and every year lighthouse preservation gets more exposure,” says Jeff Gales, who is dedicated to education and aiding restoration for the U.S. Lighthouse Society.
But for some beacons, help is already too late. The 86-foot, wave-battered Kauhola Point Lighthouse in Hawaii was demolished in 2009 to prevent it from toppling off its cliff and causing injury; New Jersey’s East Point Lighthouse and Oregon’s Tillamook Rock barely cling to land.
Dozens of others sit abandoned and vandalized, awaiting costly lead paint removal before transfer or repairs. The city of Chicago plans to return Chicago Harbor Lighthouse to the federal government, after it sat decaying for 12 years in the wake of a failed plan to transform it into a high-end hotel.
“It’s great when someone wants to take these lighthouses, but a lot of times a nonprofit or a city saw something for free—a lighthouse—and thought it was a cash cow. They do a study and realize it's a drain cow, and it just sits there,” says Korstad.
While the future is uncertain for these beacons, what’s as clear as each light’s unique flash is that it’s worth making one home for a night or two while you still can. “It connects [guests] to the past,” says Korstad, “and takes them to a place they’ve never been.”
The coronavirus pandemic has challenged communities and disrupted travel. Be sure to research your destination and take safety precautions before, during, and after your journey. For National Geographic reporting on the pandemic, click here.
Anna Fiorentino is a New England-based science writer, who also covers travel and culture. Follow her on Instagram.