Would You Like to Buy a Lighthouse?

Lighthouses are a fascinating part of Michigan history and popular tourist spots throughout the state. But if you want to buy one, restore it and open it to tourists, you can forget it. The federal government won't sell you one, even though many of them are in decay.

During the 1800s and early 1900s, the federal government built about 2,000 lighthouses-over 100 of them in Michigan-to shine their lights and protect ships from rocky shores. The government also supplied the lighthouses with modern lenses and equipment and built caretakers' houses nearby. Radar, modern communications and other innovations have since rendered many lighthouses obsolete.

Since 1939, the Coast Guard has been in charge of maintaining the nation's lighthouses, but keeping them in shape has often been a losing battle. "Many of them have been abandoned by the authorities and are falling victim to vandalism and the elements," reports Tim Harrison, editor of the monthly publication, Lighthouse Digest.

Selling lighthouses could be a win-win situation for all concerned-private investors who have the incentive to improve the value of their property, the government that would collect revenue on lighthouses converted from a drain on the treasury to taxpaying private enterprises, and all those people who don't want to see historical treasures disintegrate through public neglect. Since the 1960s, however, federal law has made it almost impossible for the government to sell any lighthouse-regardless of its structural condition-to a private owner.

The government sometimes leases lighthouses to be used as historical museums, but it reserves the right to take them back. Understandably, museum operators hesitate to make needed improvements because they can be taken away when a lease expires. To help preserve lighthouses and to persuade the authorities to give them to museums or other local groups, the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association was formed in 1982. So far, Washington isn't doing much listening.

Giving obsolete lighthouses to museums or preservation organizations would certainly be better than letting them decay further. But private, for-profit entrepreneurs might in many cases make the best of all caretakers. "Private owners, the government thinks, may not maintain the lighthouses properly," observes Harrison. We are left with the peculiar argument that even though the nation's lighthouses are steadily deteriorating, they can't be sold to private owners because they might let them deteriorate further.

Experience with private ownership of lighthouses suggests a promising potential for privatizing at least some of those still owned by the government. Before the 1960s, a number of them were sold to private individuals. Most of those owners, including some in Michigan, have taken excellent care of their property. The Mendota Lighthouse, for example, is a well-kept home on the Keweenaw Peninsula. Two others-the Sand Hills Lighthouse (also on the Keweenaw Peninsula) and the Big Bay Point Lighthouse north of Marquette-are popular bed-and-breakfast establishments.

William Frabotta, bought the Sand Hills Lighthouse over thirty-five years ago. He refurbished the eight bedrooms, all with private baths, and now rents out the rooms in both summer and winter. Frabotta brags about the cross-country skiing in the winter and the view of the scenic Northern Lights from the tower during the summer. "People love to come here to see a part of history," Frabotta says.

There's a larger lesson to be learned from all this. America's dwindling supply of lighthouses presents us with both a case study in the shortcomings of public ownership and a heartening prospect of what private enterprise might do if given the chance. To Washington, concerned citizens should send a clear signal: Sell the Lighthouses!