The mystery of lighthouses

Last month, I published a feature in Lighthouse Digest magazine about the restoration of the Frying Pan Shoals Light Tower, a 1960s era converted oil rig platform 30 miles off the Carolina coast, originally built to warn ships away from the namesake Frying Pan Shoals.

As lighthouses go, this one is hideous — a far cry from the picturesque beacons that serve as inspiration for many an oil painting. Still, Frying Pan Tower does have some romance to it. As one of the last manned light stations, it wasn’t that long ago that the tower was home to a handful of lonely Coast Guardsmen weathering storms and passing time by catching fish from the side of the platform. And the great thing is that visitors can experience the feeling themselves. Frying Pan is now open to paying guests as an adventure bed and breakfast. For many fishermen and enthusiasts, this is the fulfilling of a childhood dream — a treehouse at sea.

Frying Pan Tower Ocean View
A view of Frying Pan Tower from the sea

It’s easy to understand our fascination with lighthouses. They are lonely structures perched on the edge of a picturesque abyss, guiding even lonelier ships to safety through treacherous maritime terrain. They harken back to a time before GPS and radar took all the uncertainty and most of the romance out of navigation, and they represent that escapist desire most of us harbor — the urge to test ourselves alone against the elements.

This is why the destruction or slow seeping into disrepair faced by many lighthouses today bothers us. Even if we can’t live that solitary dream, these lighthouses are living reminders of an ideal we can aspire to, and they connect to us a more romantic, hardier time in American history. With each lighthouse that disappeared, our link with that past disappears.

This is why I encourage everyone to learn more about the study of lighthouses in their vicinity. Lighthouses are everywhere, not just on ocean coastlines. Many were built along the Great Lakes, and many smaller lights dot river shorelines east of the Mississippi. Lighthouse Digest maintains a Doomsday List of lighthouses in danger of destruction. It is a great reference point for concerned readers. There is also the U.S. Lighthouse Society and any number of smaller regional, state or local groups with which to involve yourself. The important thing is that these timeless bastions of American history, ruggedness and economic development are not forgotten.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse — probably the most famous in North Carolina.
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