Save the clock tower! …err, Light House!
Nubble Light in York, Maine is one of the most photographed light houses in the country, and one that holds a dear place in my heart. I went to high school about 20 minutes away, and would often come to Nubble Light to climb on the neighboring rocks and to get ice cream at the nearby stand. Cape Neddick, where the lighthouse is technically located, also separates the beach of Long Sands from Short Sands, both places that I also spent a great deal of time in these formative years.
A little over a week ago, a storm damaged the electrical lines that provide electricity to the lighthouse. The U.S. Coast was quick to set up a temporary light powered by two solar panels until a more permanent solution could be developed.
Understanding the logistics of this grand old lighthouse will help you understand why the restoration of electricity could be a problem. First, Nubble Light is on an island about 120 feet from the shore. This makes for a magnificent and well preserved light house, since very few people actually set foot on the island. (If you time it correctly, you can walk across the short strait between the island and the mainland at low tide. Not that I’ve very done it mind you, but I have seen the path at low tide.) It also made it difficult to get supplies to the island in the olden days, before it became un-manned, and makes it difficult to get electricity to the island today. This feature also makes Nubble Light one of the more recognizable lighthouses, especially with a boat house and ramp on the island in addition to the house.
So, currently the lighthouse has a temporary LED light powered by temporarily installed solar panels. Nubble Light with an LED light just isn’t the same. Nubble Light became a lighthouse in 1874, though the current building dates from 1879. When it was built, Nubble Light was outfitted with a 4th order Fresnel lens. I’ve provided a picture below so you can get a sense of what this lens looks like. Fresnel lenses are magnificent, and they convey the sense of the mariner’s life from generations gone by. They offer a unique kind of light that just can’t be matched by today’s LEDs. These things are older than “old school”; they’re classics in every sense of the word.
The issue at debate here is what to do as permanent solution for restoring this lighthouse. Part of the problem is that different groups are responsible for different parts of the lighthouse. The Coast Guard is responsible for the lens, and the town of York is responsible for everything else. From a cost point of view, the Coast Guard would like to permanently install solar panels on the island and replace the Fresnel lens with a more efficient LED light. Their estimated cost for this update is $6,500. Then again, the Coast Guard has said that they are more than happy to keep the existing Fresnel lens, so long as the town of York restores electricity to the island. The town of York has estimated that restoring electricity to the island would cost $36,000, an amount which is not currently in the town’s budget. In this arrangement, as before, the Coast Guard would continue to pay the town of York for the electricity provided.
I propose a different solution. One of the few blemishes on the otherwise perfect vista of Nubble Light are the electrical wires strewn across the strait between the island and the mainland. Not only are these wires unsightly, but their exposure makes the vulnerable to storms. (To be honest, I’m surprised it’s taken this long until the power was knocked out to the lighthouse.) Unfortunately, running the electrical wires underground be prohibitively expensive due to the wire’s path through stone and under water.
My proposal is to install solar panels on the island, but in a location where they would not be seen from the land, and would be very difficult to see from the water. But, I would also keep the Fresnel lens. I suspect that this wasn’t included in the original Coast Guard proposal due to the additional needs of the Fresnel lens on the solar panel system, which would necessitate a larger and more expensive system.
The town of York could also benefit from this arrangement as well. The town of York installs lights on the lighthouse in November and December for the holidays, and in July for their Christmas in July event. The proposed Coast Guard solar panel installation would not provide enough electricity to power these holiday lights, and the seacoast are would lose one of its long standing traditions. If the town of York took the lead in installing a solar panel system, it could install one that was large enough to provide electricity for all these needs. Additionally, the town of York could continue to charge the Coast Guard for the electricity that the light uses. And, best of all, the Fresnel lens could be maintained.
(If anyone from the town of York is interested in evaluating this option, I’ve designed and installed these systems in the past, and would be happy to donate part of my time to help York evaluate this option.)
It might seem strange that I’m getting nostalgic over something as simple as a 135-year old piece of glass. Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally in favor of innovation and moving forward. But, I want to make sure that we don’t do it at the expense of losing who we were. Nubble Light, and the Frensel lens that’s been there since the beginning, is part of our collective heritage. Think of those early sailors 135 years ago that were saved by Nubble Light and its Fresnel lens from wrecking on the rocks of Cape Neddick. To them, Nubble Light represented direction and safety. It should do the same for all of us, and help connect us to those first pioneers that dared to navigate the untamed oceans.
Save the Clock Tower! …err, Light House!