The U.S. Is Giving Away Lighthouses for Free

While they are no longer a navigational necessity, the guiding lights have histories worth preserving

Cleveland Harbor West Pierhead Light
The Cleveland Harbor West Pierhead Light is one of ten lighthouses the U.S. government is giving away this year. Erik Drost via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0

In the early 19th century, sailors making their way to Providence, Rhode Island, depended on the signal of the Warwick Neck Light to safely find their way. While it no longer carries the navigational significance it once did, the 51-foot tower continues to preside over Narragansett Bay from its clifftop perch. 

Now, this historical property’s dramatic views could be yours.

This year, the General Services Administration (GSA) will give away six of the historic beacons, including the Warwick Neck Light, at no cost. An additional four will be sold via public auction. The goal of the transfers is to preserve the historic buildings, even as technology renders them obsolete.  

For hundreds of years, lighthouses have welcomed travelers to the shores of the United States. However, the advent of navigation technologies like GPS has left many of the shore’s sentinels without a practical purpose. Since the passage of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act in 2000, the GSA has been transferring ownership of lighthouses “no longer critical to the U.S. Coast Guard’s mission needs” to groups willing to preserve them, according to a statement from the agency.

“People really appreciate the heroic role of the solitary lighthouse keeper,” says John Kelly of the GSA’s office of real property disposition to Mark Pratt of the Associated Press (AP). “They were really the instruments to provide safe passage into some of these perilous harbors which afforded communities great opportunities for commerce, and they’re often located in prominent locations that offer breathtaking views.”

At many lighthouses, upkeep is challenging: Two of the structures up for auction, the Penfield Reef Lighthouse in Fairfield, Connecticut, and the Stratford Shoal Light in the middle of the Long Island Sound, are accessible only by boat.

“They’re such unusual reflections of our history that it takes a certain kind of person who wants to be a part of that,” Robin Carnahan, administrator of the GSA, tells the New York Times’ Michael Levenson.

For now, the lighthouses won’t be available to just anyone. The GSA is first offering them at no cost to federal agencies, state and local governments, nonprofits, educational agencies and community development organizations. To be eligible, interested buyers must be able to maintain the historic property and allow the public to access it. More than 80 lighthouses have found a new owner—and stable future—through this process so far, according to the GSA.

Several of the lighthouses up for grabs this year are already under the care of nonprofits, which can apply to continue their work, Kelly tells the AP. For example, the Nobska Lighthouse in Falmouth, Massachusetts is maintained by the Friends of Nobska Light, which has applied for the transfer of ownership, according to the Cape Cod Times’ Zane Razzaq.

If no owner is found, the lighthouses will be offered for sale to the public via auction. The GSA has auctioned 70 lighthouses to date, in sales ranging from $10,000 to over $900,000, reports NPR’s Emma Bowman.

Other lighthouses going to auction this year include the Cleveland Harbor West Pierhead Light in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Keweenaw Waterway Lower Entrance Light in Chassell, Michigan. The list of transfer-eligible lighthouses includes Lynde Point Lighthouse in Old Saybrook, Connecticut; Plymouth/Gurnet Lighthouse in Plymouth, Massachusetts; Little Mark Island and Monument in Harpswell, Maine; and Erie Harbor North Pier Lighthouse in Erie, Pennsylvania.

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