Acadia National Park is poised “any day now” to take over the vacant Bass Harbor Head Light Station, setting the stage for a new era for the iconic lighthouse, one of the most popular attractions within the park’s boundaries.
Ahead of becoming the new owner, Acadia is weighing recommendations in a new study of Bass Harbor Head Light by the National Park Service’s Historic Preservation Training Center. The “Bass Harbor Head Light Station Historic Structure Report,” produced with funds donated by the Friends of Acadia, is aimed at guiding future rehabilitation and repair work at the 2.75-acre complex including the original 1858 lighthouse with its cylindrical brick tower, the 1858 keeper’s dwelling, and the 1905 wood-frame garage.
The Coast Guard currently owns the iconic lighthouse and other structures and has been planning to transfer it to Acadia since 2017.
“Apparently, all the paperwork is sitting with the General Services Administration and they need to do sort of the final paperwork to get it to us,” John T. Kelly, management assistant for Acadia National Park, said. “It should have happened a long time ago. It is really any day now but we have been saying any day now for months.”
When it assumes ownership, the National Park Service is hopeful of finding a partner to staff, operate and maintain the lighthouse and other buildings, maybe, for instance, a nonprofit group such as Eastern National, which promotes education of National Parks with books, other products and services, or the Tremont Historical Society, Kelly said.
Bass Harbor Head Light Station vacant for almost a decade
Situated on a dramatic rocky ledge at the southernmost tip of Mount Desert Island, the complex has been vacant since 2012 after the Coast Guard’s commander of the Southwest Harbor Station stopped using the keeper’s dwelling as a residence.
The Coast Guard is writing language in paperwork that would give it access to the site to continue to maintain the lighthouse as an active aid to navigation and pay for the power after it is transferred to the national park.
“The lens is in good condition, and the USCG will continue to use it,” Kelly wrote in a followup email. “USCG said it would be replacing the current white incandescent lamp with a red LED lamp and removing the red plexiglass encasing that currently colors the beam.”
The lighthouse’s fourth-order 1901 Fresnel lens is a type invented by Augustin-Jean Fresnel, a Frenchman who transformed lighthouse lens technology, making it much brighter, in the early 1800s.
The lamp, which produces the light, and the lens, which amplifies and directs the light, are housed in a lantern, or glass enclosure on the tower, Kelly explained.
Iconic lighthouse is fifth most visited attraction in Acadia
Kelly said Bass Harbor Head Light Station, the official name for the entire complex, is the fifth most visited attraction in the park, behind No. 1 Cadillac Mountain, Sand Beach, Thunder Hole and Jordan Pond. Kelly said it is exciting for the park to take ownership of the lighthouse.
“It’s in an iconic location,” Kelly said, noting that it represented the park on the “America the Beautiful” quarter issued in 2012.
Bass Harbor Head Light was also depicted on the first of 16 US Postal Service forever stamps to celebrate the NPS’s 100th anniversary in 2016, on the cover of the 2017 Rand McNally Road Atlas and is on the 2020 Acadia annual park pass. It was also listed on the National Register of Historic Places in January 1988.
Kelly said Acadia is ready to take ownership of the iconic lighthouse after completion of an environmental assessment of the site last year. The assessment assured that Acadia is not inheriting oil spills or other environmental cleanup that it would need to fund.
“We are really all set to go,’’ Kelly said.
Bass Harbor Head Light Station will add to maintenance backlog
At the same time, the property will require about $200,000 to $250,000 in immediate work and more rehabilitation money in the future from Acadia, which already has about a $60 million maintenance backlog.
“It is an important resource but we are concerned about the cost of operating and maintaining it for sure,” Kelly said.
“Until we decide what to do with it, we won’t know what the costs of rehabilitating it are,” he added.
The park is not leaning toward any particular use, he said, and he did not want to guess when the park would approve a new partner to occupy the site. A use would include an interpretive component to help visitors understand the history and importance of Bass Harbor Head Light.
“We have set some goals for it and one of the goals is that we find a use and a partner that either eliminates or greatly relieves us of operational costs,” he said.
The iconic lighthouse, designed to guide mariners into Bass Harbor, a fishing village to the northwest, would become the third lighthouse owned by the park. The other lighthouses under Acadia’s jurisdiction are on Baker Island and Bear Island, two of the five Cranberry Islands off Mount Desert Island.
The entire 10-acre Baker Island Light Station is under the jurisdiction of Acadia National Park, having been acquired from the U.S. Coast Guard in two parcels in 1958 and 2011. The Coast Guard has an easement to maintain the light in the light tower.
A lessee is responsible for upkeep and maintenance of the Bear Island light.
Exterior restorations should keep historical character
The Historic Structure Report, released in February, urges exterior restoration of all buildings at the Bass Harbor complex to depict the form, features and character of a period of significance up to 1948 when modernization started.
The report calls for interior rehabilitation to allow for a compatible and adaptive use, while attempting to preserve character-defining features.
The Historic Structure Report cited modest maintenance deficiencies and rated as fair the overall condition for all five buildings at Bass Harbor Head Light Station, which also includes the 1897 bell house and the 1902 oil house.
The iconic lighthouse, one of about 65 in Maine, itself is in overall fair condition with serious maintenance deficiencies including deteriorated paint and rust.
The report said that maintenance needs, while requiring to be addressed, “are superficial and in no way signify justification for any treatment other than full restoration of the buildings and continued use.”
The report, for example, identified the exterior railing on the balcony on the lighthouse, as being in poor condition with deformed metal components at the original upper rail and significant areas of rust, paint peeling, and metal splitting into layers.
The walls of the lantern, or the portion of the tower that encloses the lens, are in poor condition. The report also recommends installing historic-style roller shades inside the lantern to protect the lens.
There is also deteriorated paint, rust, and staining on the cornice area above the glass panes of the lantern.
Inside the keeper’s dwelling, the historic main stairway is in good structural condition but is dangerous due to slippery carpet and inconsistent treads and risers.
Friends of Acadia leads effort to protect iconic lighthouse
When the lighthouse was automated, it assured the end of a long line of keepers who tended the light through storms and cold.
The report pays homage to keepers such as carpenter James L. Wilson of Tremont, keeper from 1872 to 1880, who lived in the keeper’s dwelling with his wife and six children, and Leverett S. Stanley, keeper from 1940-1950, promoted to Bass Harbor from his job as keeper on Great Duck Island Lighthouse, where he made $1,400 a year.
Kelly noted that because Bass Harbor Head Light is such a special destination, there is a lot of philanthropy available. Friends of Acadia raised nearly $300,000 to protect the lighthouse during its 2018 annual benefit and is seeking donations to help make the property a permanent cultural and educational asset in the park.
“Something attractive like that is a lot easier to raise money for than to pave a road,” Kelly said. “It always will have that benefit of being a feature that people have a lot of interest in preserving. There are several national organizations that are dedicated to lighthouse preservation. We’re interested in talking with them. The American Lighthouse Foundation is in Rockland [Maine] and we have had initial discussions with them and they are certainly interested in hearing what we can do with it and suspect they will be a good source of at least advice if not possible funding.”
The light station is also important for hiking in Acadia.
At the southeast corner of the parking lot, a maintained trail and steep wooden stairs lead down to the rocky coast. While the view toward the light station is impressive, the rocks can be treacherous and even crowded.
An asphalt path on the southwest corner of the lot leads to the tower and several displays on the history and importance of the light station.
Traffic and parking can be problems at Bass Harbor Head
While it’s a nice hike, visitors often need vehicles to reach the remote Bass Harbor station and vehicles can create issues.
Kelly told the Acadia Advisory Commission in 2019 that traffic management at the complex will also be important. Parking is free at the light station but there are only about 25 spaces and capacity may need to be expanded in the future.
The town of Tremont and the NPS currently enforce “no parking” along half-mile-long Lighthouse Road, the dead-end entrance road off Route 102A that has been often been lined with vehicles on a sunny day, especially near sunset.
During the 2019 season, the entrance road was closed a record 32 times because of traffic congestion.
“A big portion of what we need to do as we move forward is not to just look at the lighthouse and how we are going to use it but to look at how it affects that whole area, including access, parking and transportation,” Kelly told the commission in 2019, according to the commission minutes.
NPS report shows iconic lighthouse in need of repairs, remodel
We visited the bass harbor head light in 2018 and i photographed the light and the color was red. In 2020 we again visited the light in august and my photos show a clear light. was the red lens removed for a short time or was the light color changed ? We love viewing all of Maine’s lighthouses and have some wonderful photos and memories of each one.
Thanks for this question, Robert. It turns out that shortly after the formal transfer of the light station from the Coast Guard to the National Park Service in July, the red acrylic “chimney” around the fourth-order Fresnel lens was removed, according to the NPS. You may have seen the light when the red chimney was removed. The Coast Guard did ultimately replace the white lamp with a red LED, allowing for the removal of the chimney while maintaining the historic red light.
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Lighthouses are not to my taste. Although they are not to my taste, I used to love viewing the sunset there. On our first trip to Acadia, many decades ago, we went there for sunset just about every night, but then traffic was lighter and parking, even for viewing the sunset, was never a problem.
The NPS should do their best to monetize it: charge for parking; give the stairs to whatever concessionaire runs the lighthouse so they can charge anyone who wants to go down to the rocks and take that “iconic” picture. It would be a shame for Acadia’s management to spend precious and much needed maintenance money on it.
Thanks for sharing your insights, Jim. Maine is called the “Lighthouse State,” for a good reason. Lighthouses are such a fundamental part of the state’s maritime history and people have strong feelings about them, maybe because they are such potent symbols of hope and guidance. Friends of Acadia raised quite a bit of money during an annual benefit for the Bass Harbor lighthouse and many organizations are raising and have raised money for lighthouses so they do have solid constituencies. It would be good if the Bass Harbor lantern room on top of the tower could be opened often so people could stand inside and get the spectacular view over Blue Hill Bay. That might be worth an admission price alone. Bass Harbor lighthouse participated in Maine Open Lighthouse Day last year, and we were told by a participant that a couple of people at a time were allowed to climb the spiral stairs inside the tower to reach the lantern room for views. Bass Harbor Head light is also scheduled to be in Maine Lighthouse Day in on Sept. 12 of 2020. If you get a free tour, and a spectacular view from atop the tower, you might warm up to lighthouses. You are right, though, that the park could be facing some big maintenance and rehab bills on Bass Harbor Head light. Any money spent on the lighthouse could be spent on other items in the park’s $60 million maintenance backlog. With the lighthouse likely taking money from other projects, some might find that hard to accept. Always great to read your comments, Jim.
I am excited for this new chapter in Acadia & the Bass Harbor Light’s history. Hopefully someone (an organization) who cares about preservation & history can be found to restore & repair this landmark for generations to enjoy.
Nice to hear, Jeanette! It will be exciting, no doubt about that, and definitely a challenge for Acadia National Park to find a new tenant and restore and rehab the Bass Harbor Head Light Station. In the next few years ahead, we can look forward to some big changes at the light station. It is good to see a strong commitment from Friends of Acadia to raise donations for the lighthouse and that the effort has already paid dividends. Thanks for the comment.