Vermont may be known for many things, like vibrant fall foliage, tangy cheddar cheese, and idyllic Currier and Ives winter scenes. The only New England state without a seacoast certainly isn’t known for its lighthouses. But Vermont shares Lake Champlain, the nation’s sixth largest lake, with the state of New York. The opening of the Champlain Canal in 1823 meant faster shipping to New York City, and by 1875 Burlington was the third largest lumber port in the U.S. Of the lighthouses eventually established on the lake’s shores and islands, ten survive today.
All of the lighthouses were deactivated years ago, some replaced by modern automatic lights nearby. But the Coast Guard has been working closely with the private owners of some of these historic properties, and now two of the Green Mountain State’s beacons are shining again. Chief Warrant Officer Dave Waldrip, the lighthouse manager for the First Coast Guard District, explains the process, “We are keeping the signal for the mariner and putting some history back into Lake Champlain.”
Also, since the lighthouses are privately maintained at no cost to the taxpayer, the elimination of the modern light structures means big savings. It has cost the Coast Guard about $10,000 to relight the two lighthouses, while refurbishing or replacing the modern steel towers would have been far more expensive.
A lighthouse at Windmill Point in Alburg, Vermont, may have been established as early as 1830. The first light on the spot, reportedly the site of an early windmill, was probably a lantern on a post. The present handsome 40-foot octagonal limestone tower was built in 1858 along with a keeper’s house attached by a passageway to the tower. The lighthouse, which originally held a sixth order Fresnel lens exhibiting a fixed white light, was replaced by a steel skeleton tower in 1931.
In 1963 a local man, Lockwood “Lucky” Clark, was showing his bride-to-be around the area. As they were looking at the lighthouse, the owner approached them and asked if they were interested in buying it. It wasn’t long before Lucky Clark had purchased the property. This made two lighthouses in the family, as Lucky’s father had bought the Isle La Motte Light Station about five miles to the south in 1949.
The light at Isle La Motte, established about 1829 or 1830, was at first a lantern hung from a pine tree. It was later placed in an upper window of a stone house. In 1856 the U.S. Government erected a stone pyramid with a lantern, with a local farmer serving as keeper. Increased shipping traffic in the area soon made a more permanent lighthouse a necessity, and in 1879 Congress appropriated $5,000 for a “better light” and a keeper’s house. Wilbur F. Hill was keeper of the old beacon starting in 1871, and he remained at the station until 1919, serving 48 years as keeper. During his years at Isle la Motte Light, Keeper Hill received awards for having the best-kept station in the district. He also maintained a 100-acre farm nearby.
The present 25-foot cast iron lighthouse, built in 1880, was replaced by a skeleton tower with an automatic beacon in 1933. Once painted orange, the Isle la Motte Lighthouse long ago faded to a distinctive pinkish hue. According to Lieutenant Commander Chris Lund of the Coast Guard, the locals prefer to call the color “Nantucket red” or “salmon.”
The owner who sold the Clarks the lighthouse in 1949 was actually the family’s dentist. Lucky Clark’s sister has lived for many years in the wooden keeper’s dwelling at Isle La Motte, and over the years the family has purchased more land surrounding the light station.
In 2001 the Clarks were approached by the Coast Guard about the possibility of relighting their two lighthouses. This was something the family had thought about for years, so they gladly began work to prepare the towers. The Coast Guard provided the optics and solar panels to provide power, while the Clarks did some refurbishing of the lighthouses and fabricated a new pedestal to hold the light at Isle La Motte. Lucky Clark and his son Rob estimate that they spent about 400 hours and about $400 on their lighthouses to get ready for the relightings.
On August 7, 2002, National Lighthouse Day, people gathered to see the light turned on at Windmill Point. For the first time in almost seven decades, Lake Champlain had a working lighthouse. “As a kid, we used to talk about the lighting the tower,” Rob Clark told the Burlington Free Press, “but we never thought it would happen.”
The relighting ceremony was the result of cooperation between the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, the State of Vermont, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Clark family. Speakers included Art Cohn, Director of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum; Chief Warrant Officer Dave Waldrip of the Coast Guard; Senior Chief James Steudle, the Officer in Charge of U.S. Coast Guard Station Burlington; and Eric Gilbertson, Vermont’s Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer. Rob Clark and his 84 year-old father Lucky also addressed the crowd. At 8:33 p.m. everyone counted down from ten and the new 300 mm optic was switched on, and the large crowd of onlookers cheered.
Two months later, on the evening of October 5, 2002, the Isle La Motte Lighthouse returned to service at dusk, marking another historic day for the Clarks and the lighthouses of Lake Champlain. Attendance at the ceremony was estimated at more than 300. Art Cohn of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum again served as master of ceremonies, and BM1 Kevin Erwin, Aids to Navigation Petty Officer from Station Burlington, represented the Coast Guard. Bob McEwen of the Isle La Motte Historical Society presented a history of the light station.
As the moment of relighting approached, everyone counted down from ten. This time, local schoolchildren had the honor of relighting the lighthouse. The group of children was joined by Lois Cameron, great-granddaughter of Keeper Wilbur Hill. As the light came on at 6:18 p.m., a cannon blazed and Lucky Clark vigorously rang an old fog bell.
Lighthouse buff Sue LeFever, who attended both relightings, says that the Lockwoods “are ordinary folks who take extraordinary pride in their accomplishments and enjoy sharing with others. They are true lightkeepers.”
The Coast Guard is now working with the owners in preparation for the relighting of three lighthouses on the New York side of the lake: Cumberland Head, Split Rock and Bluff Point (Valcour Island). It’s a bright new day for a long-dark group of lighthouses.
This story appeared in the
December 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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