How to Save a Historic Lighthouse. Sometimes the Answer is ... Give it Away

Chicago Harbor Lighthouse.

The Chicago Harbor Lighthouse. Photo by Storm Crypt via Flickr

There's just something about a lighthouse that appeals to history buffs, romantics, and lots of other people. The National Park System includes some great lighthouses, and some fans of those landmarks might like to see the National Park Service assume responsibility for more of those landmarks to ensure their preservation.

The fiscal reality, of course, is the NPS or other federal agencies can't save every worthy historic structure in the country. As the agency's maintenance backlog clearly demonstrates, putting a historic site under NPS management doesn't guarantee funds will be available to provide all the attention those resources require. Sometimes the best way to preserve a lighthouse is for the feds to give it away, as illustrated in an announcement earlier this week.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today initiated the transfer of the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse, a beacon that has been a symbol of the Windy City for more than a century, from the U.S. Coast Guard to the City of Chicago.

“The Chicago Harbor Lighthouse reflects the proud heritage of Chicago and the pivotal role the city played in our nation’s maritime history, connecting the Great Lakes to the East Coast and ultimately to the Gulf Coast,” Salazar said. “By transferring ownership of the lighthouse to the city, we are guaranteeing that this historic Chicago landmark will be preserved and open to the public for generations to come.”

The Chicago Harbor Lighthouse is the only surviving lighthouse in Chicago and one of only two remaining lighthouses in the Illinois portion of Lake Michigan.

Originally constructed in 1893 in time for the Chicago World’s Fair, the lighthouse was moved to its present location in 1917 when the harbor’s breakwater was renovated. At that time, an attached fog-signal room and boathouse were constructed.

The 48-foot-high lighthouse played such a significant role in the development of Chicago that it is commemorated in a relief sculpture, entitled "The Spirit of the Waters," located near the LaSalle Street entrance of City Hall.

In 1984 the lighthouse was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 2003, the City of Chicago designated the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse a Chicago Landmark.

The transfer of the lighthouse to the city was made under the authority of National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, which charges the Department of the Interior with recommending the transfer of historic lighthouses (at no cost) to federal agencies, state and local governments, nonprofit corporations and community development organizations.

Entities that receive light stations must make them available for education, park, recreation, cultural, or historic preservation purposes and provide public access. About 300 historic lighthouses have been identified nationwide; 46 of them have been transferred thus far under the Act.

The City of Chicago, which began the application process in 2005, was the sole applicant for the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse.

The Chicago Harbor Lighthouse has never been under National Park Service management; it has been under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Coast Guard. The cost to the NPS in this case was limited to assisting the city with the necessary paperwork for the transfer application process.

Lighthouse fans can enjoy some fine examples of lighthouses in national parks, including those at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and Cape Hatteras National Seashore. However, the cost of restoring and maintaining any historic structure is significant, especially if it's located in a damp, coastal or lakeshore environment.

Although all history buffs may not agree, the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act seems to offer a realistic approach to preserving these resources. It also recognizes that the NPS can't save 'em all.