IN 1989 Edward Kennedy tried to stop time. The United States Coast Guard was preparing to automate and remove all remaining personnel from the old lighthouse in Boston Harbour. But Kennedy, a liberal senator from a family with deep roots in Boston, sponsored a bill requiring the Boston Light to be permanently manned. And so it soldiered on for nearly another decade, stubbornly holding to the old ways. Built in 1783, it is one of America’s oldest lighthouses (the oldest was its predecessor, which the British blew up as they slunk home in June 1776). In 1998 time and Senator Kennedy reached a compromise: the light itself was at last automated, but it remains the last one with resident Coast Guard keepers.
The Coast Guard took charge of America’s more than 1,000 lighthouses in 1939, when it absorbed the United States Lighthouse Service. But it has been slowly letting them go. In 2000 the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act allowed the sale or transfer of lighthouses deemed “excess to service requirements” by the Coast Guard to private entities. Since then the federal government has moved 84 lighthouses of the 600 that were left off its books. Most have been transferred to local governments or non-profits, but 28 have been auctioned off to private individuals.
The sad truth is that satellite navigation has made many lighthouses surplus to requirements. Shifting commercial trends have done their damage, too. More than 1,500 ships lie wrecked off North Carolina’s Outer Banks, but today these islands depend far more on tourism than on maritime trade.
Still, some fishermen enjoy navigating by light rather than satellite. Sometimes they forget to take their navigation systems on board. Bett Padgett, who heads the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society, which petitioned the federal government for funds to restore Bodie Island’s once-crumbling lighthouse, warns of solar flares knocking out satellites.
All that is true, but defending lighthouses as a matter of utility surely misses the point.。 Of course, lighthouses draw tourists, who spend money; one informal study estimated that restoring the Bodie Island lighthouse, which is scheduled to open to visitors for the first time in April 2013, would add $8.7m in total income to the regional economy.But for Ms Padgett, preserving them is a way “to give our children and grandchildren a feel for what happened in this place a hundred or two hundred years ago.” Men built them by hand to stand watch over the sea. Lighthouses remind people that as mariners battled what Walt Whitman called “the wild unrest, the snowy, curling caps—that inbound urge and urge of waves, Seeking the shores forever,” someone was watching over them, and wishing them safely home.