Historic Lighthouse Restoration

The History of Maine cannot be told without including the importance coastal lighthouses have played since the 19th century. Commerce to and from our state was predominately done by shipping. Fishing was a major industry as well. Anyone with a need to ply the coast of Maine relied heavily on the lighthouses and their keepers. Although the keepers have been replaced by solar automated lights, the lighthouses of this coast are still providing a vital service to fishermen and shipping in the Gulf of Maine.

After 155 years of Coast Guard control, the maintenance of the islands and the structures was turned over to the US Fish & Wildlife Service. As part of their mission, the US Fish & Wildlife Service established the Maine Coastal Islands National Refuge.

Using Recovery Act Funds, the US Fish & Wildlife Service began a program to restore the historic lighthouses and associated structures that needed new roofs, new windows, painting, and masonry repointing. All work was accomplished with National Park Service Historic Restoration Standards.

The work of the contract took place on three remote islands, Matinicus Rock, Petit Manan, and Libby Island. The work of the contract was not unique; but miles offshore, it did present unique challenges of a logistical nature. There were no utilities. Water and electricity needed to be provided through transporting and bringing generators ashore. Since the iron portion that sits atop the granite structure of Matinicus Rock Light was so extensively deteriorated by salt spray, we made the decision to sandblast. That required bringing ashore a 2,500-lb. compressor from a small landing craft, as well as two tons of blasting sand. An old winch in the boathouse, originally used to bring life boats up the way, was adapted to be powered using a large 1/2" drill, and could go forward or reverse. Skids were built that fit the way, and they then hauled the compressor and sand up the way to the boathouse. The sand was then hand carried, bag by bag, up the boardwalk to the lighthouse. Three hundred feet of 3" compressor hose was run from the boathouse to the lighthouse.

When wind and seas allowed a landing on the way by a small boat from a lobster boat, each piece of staging, water jugs, sand and mortar, windows and doors, and virtually everything that came ashore was hand carried up hill over the rocks to the lighthouses. When landing was too risky on the way, small boats landed on the rocks on the lee of the island. This then required "all hands" to lug item by item across the rocks, sometimes covered by seaweed. It was not uncommon for masons, painters, electricians and carpenters to form a chain passing water jugs, propane for cooking, gas for the generator, staging frames and planks, food and roof shingles along until everything reached its destination.

Libby Island once had a way and dock. These had long since been destroyed by the sea. Landings there were planned at an appropriate tide to minimize landing on seaweed covered rocks.

Helicopters were used to transport materials to Libby Island in cargo nets, but they were not always available. The mail plane that went to Matinicus and Criehaven would, on occasion, circle the island and drop needed parts out of a window.

Since staging the lighthouses on granite ledges that surround them was virtually impossible, a professional climber was employed to caulk the copper roof of Petit Manan Lighthouse. On Matinicus Rock the climber was used to rappel the sandblasting personnel so the underside of the lighthouse deck could be completed, and then to apply the necessary coats of paint.

All three islands are part of the Maine Coastal National Wildlife Refuge, and are maintained as sanctuaries for many species of aquatic birds. Because of this sensitive endeavor, access was denied to the islands from May 1st to September 1st, the prime nesting months. Schedules were closely developed with USFWS and the various trades. This meant that work that is weather and temperature sensitive could not happen until early Spring and Fall. Spring on the Maine coast brings fog daily. Both seasons are cold and windy, and actual days worked were few in number. These limiting factors allowed what normally would be a six month job, to stretch over a two-year period. Seasonal mobilization and demobilization was necessary to salvage equipment and materials that would otherwise be destroyed by winter winds and freezing temperatures.

Besides the challenges of logistics, safety was a number one concern. The transport of men, materials and supplies encompassed many modes of transportation, including helicopters, boats, and a rubber raft or dory. All operations were observed by the safety officer. When embarking or debarking would put personnel at risk, the operation was cancelled until wind and waves would allow.

Communications were set up with back-up systems to the mainland. Island superintendents contacted the main office twice daily to check in and report the conditions and work progress. Penobscot Island Air was available to transport from a nearby island that had an air strip, should evacuation need to take place.

No injuries occurred in the two-year period.