Digest>Archives> Sep/Oct 2013

Wickie’s Wisdom

Butler Flats Lighthouse Auction: The Winds of Change

By Timothy Harrison


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Butler Flats Lighthouse as it appears today.
Photo by: Nick Korstad

Although I am confident that the Butler Flats Lighthouse in New Bedford, Massachusetts will have a good new owner, it’s a real shame that the City of New Bedford, a city which is so steeped in maritime history, did not apply for ownership of the lighthouse when it was offered to them for free.

I remember when and why New Bedford, Massachusetts was selected as the site for the International Lighthouse Conference, “Kids on the Beam” that was held in 2002. The historic maritime city was chosen because of its historic lighthouses, museums, and forts, as well as being the home of the marvelous New Bedford Whaling Museum, the Seamen’s Bethel of Moby Dick fame, the Mariner’s House, the Lightship Sailors Memorial, and so many more historic sites, many of which are part of a National Historic Landmark District.

The mayor at that time, Frederick Kalisz, who was a strong supporter of lighthouse preservation, led the movement that restored the areas three lighthouses - Palmer Island, Butler Flats, and Clark’s Point - without using any taxpayer money. The 100th birthday celebration of the restored Butler’s Flats Lighthouse drew over 600 people and the relighting of Clark’s Point Lighthouse drew a crowd of over 3,000 people. I know, because I was there and Lighthouse Digest reported about these events.

As one of the major organizers of the 2002 International Lighthouse Conference in New Bedford, I remember the large number of true lighthouse enthusiasts, from our nation and other parts of the world, who were drawn to that event. To the best of my knowledge, no lighthouse event since then has been attended by so many lighthouse preservationists as well as such a large contingent of Coast Guard officers (and even an Admiral), as well as so many varied elected officials who showed up.

But things are much different now. The economic conditions have dramatically changed in the past twelve years. People have passed or moved on, and the numbers of people who truly care about lighthouse preservation seem to be far less today than then.

In the case of the Butler Flat’s Lighthouse, which a previous mayor had restored a number of years ago without taxpayer money, City Councilor Denis Lawrence Jr. said that the City Council was never informed that the city had turned down the offer to get the lighthouse for free under the National Historic Preservation Act.

New Bedford’s current mayor, Jon Mitchell, said he could not recall if his office had ever notified the City Council that his office had rejected the offer to apply for free ownership of the lighthouse.

I guess things really have changed.

Arthur Motta, the city’s former tourism director, who had worked closely on the restoration of the city’s three lighthouses, criticized the auction. Motta, who now works for the New Bedford Whaling Museum, stated in an e-mail, “Important landmarks shouldn’t be sold off just because we say there’s no money. There’s never any money. These things [lighthouses] are either important to save as a community or they’re not. If the only way to save it is to sell it, well, that’s just a sad state of affairs. Where’s the community pride in that?”

While it’s true that many lighthouses, which should have been taken over by local communities or nonprofits, have been sold off, it’s still too early to see if these lighthouses will be properly cared for into the future. However, if we look back in history we find a mixed bag of results with the lighthouses that were sold off many years ago. Some have been lost, while others have been exquisitely maintained.

In my humble opinion, I believe that the future of the lighthouses now being excessed under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act will also find a mixed bag of results. But the winds of change are blowing fast and furious, and we can only hope that we have laid the groundwork for future preservations. However, I can assure you, almost beyond a reason of doubt, that 25 or 50 years from now, there will be fewer lighthouses standing then, than are standing now.

This story appeared in the Sep/Oct 2013 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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