WALL STREET JOURNAL
February 5, 2003
A BEACON LURES TOURISTS–AND THE COUNTY
JOHN J. MILLER
No road led to the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, near Corolla, N.C., when John Wilson first laid eyes on it as an adult, in 1978. He and some friends had driven a Jeep along the shore at low tide to reach the remote site, where Mr. Wilson’s great-grandfather had been a keeper many years earlier.
“The lighthouse tower was in really bad shape,” says Mr. Wilson. “Windows were broken, rust was eating the metalwork, and brackets had fallen from the gallery way at the top.” Other buildings on the grounds were in even worse condition. A little house was so overgrown with vines that Wilson and his friends didn’t even know it was there.
Today, drivers can follow Route 12 to the lighthouse, park in a small lot, and visit the little house, which has been turned into a gift shop. They can also pay $6 to climb the tower’s 214 steps and see a magnificent view of surf and sand — something about 85,000 people did last year. North Carolina’s Outer Banks are famous for their lighthouses, but only the one at Currituck Beach is now open to the public. (The Cape Hatteras lighthouse has been closed due to structural damage suffered during its move in 1999.)
It’s also the only one run by a nonprofit group — in 1980, Mr. Wilson and four others founded the Outer Banks Conservationists and began a long-term restoration project that concluded in 1999. Preservation work continues, but in two decades the OBC has transformed one of the most dilapidated lighthouses in the region into a model for the rest.
And now the local Currituck County government has launched a takeover bid, even enlisting a member of Congress in the attempt. “They showed no interest in it before the restoration,” says Mr. Wilson. “Now they’re saying they deserve ownership.”
The 162-foot-tall, red-brick structure was built in 1875 and operated by the Bureau of Lighthouses until 1939, when the romantic age of the lonely lighthouse keeper came to an end as the Coast Guard took control, automated the beacon, and visited the site only to change bulbs. Everything else began to fall apart — until the arrival of Mr. Wilson, whose group signed a long-term lease allowing it to restore the tower and open it to the public.
Today, the Global Positioning System has rendered lighthouses obsolete as navigation aids. Yet they remain hugely popular with the public, which appreciates their important role in maritime history and surprising architectural diversity. They’ve also become engines of tourism, drawing visitors from around the country to such scenic but out-of-the-way places as Whitefish Point in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
A dedicated community of enthusiasts strives to protect their legacy. “Lighthouses were built to save lives,” says Tim Harrison, president of the American Lighthouse Foundation, in Wells, Maine. “Now it’s our turn to save them.”
The Coast Guard wants to oblige by unloading about 300 “surplus” light stations. A process established by Congress in 2000 allows local governments and nonprofits to apply for no-cost ownership transfers. A handful of lighthouses already have been conveyed, including well-known ones at St. Augustine, Fla., and Tybee Island, Ga.
Currituck Beach was supposed to be among them, except that controversy erupted when the county and the OBC both expressed interest. The two parties failed to reach a compromise and started trading barbs.
The county notes that the OBC isn’t headquartered in Currituck County; its offices are a bit south, in Dare County. Mr. Wilson says he put out his shingle there when no roads went to the lighthouse, and he doesn’t see a reason to move now. And by the way, he’d like to know, where was the county when he was repairing the lighthouse with his own hands?
Relations turned especially bitter last fall, when Rep. Walter Jones (R., N.C.) tried to short-circuit the application process and have Congress grant the lighthouse directly to the county. He failed, but may try again. In the meantime, Friday is the Interior Department’s deadline for ownership requests; a decision is expected sometime this spring.
The fundamental dispute comes down to whether local governments or nonprofits are better suited to preserve cultural landmarks. “We have more resources to do the job,” says Dan Scanlon, the county manager. “We’ll never have to choose between painting the keeper’s house and funding non-lighthouse projects,” counters John Birkholz of the OBC.
In truth, either group would probably do an adequate job, even as the OBC plays David to the county’s Goliath. Would that more lighthouses had this problem: A number of them, such as those on inaccessible islands, may not have any takers. They’ll eventually crumble away.
Not so with the Currituck light. Says county attorney John Morrison, “Somebody’s going to win and somebody’s going to lose, but the lighthouse will still be here.”
Mr. Miller is a writer for National Review.