The presence of lighthouses in the U.S. is about as old as the nation itself. So is the role of lighthouse keepers, who were responsible for maintaining their structures and ensuring their shining lights remained visible to passing ships.
These days, lighthouses across the country have been getting some help with their upkeep through volunteer programs.
Active lighthouses mainly fall under the supervision of the U.S. Coast Guard, while the National Park Service currently oversees 25 lighthouses plus five lookouts.
The Coast Guard began licensing historic lighthouses to nonprofits in the late 1970s and early 1980s to administer their structural care, according to Jeff Gales, executive director of the U.S. Lighthouse Society. These organizations continue to help preserve the future of these longtime buildings and, over the years, started volunteer programs to assist in this process.
“Most of these groups are always looking for good people to help out,” said Gales, “and the people who are part of these groups are very unique. They love historic landmarks; they usually love maritime history.”
Lighthouse volunteer programs often involve an application process and range in time commitments and requirements; some may require participants to pay fees or become members of these nonprofits. Volunteers may serve as interim keepers, docents, interpreters or gift shop personnel.
Programs can be found from coast to coast and amid the Great Lakes region, including at the Five Finger Lighthouse on Alaska’s Five Finger Islands, Race Point Lighthouse on Cape Cod and the Heceta Head Lighthouse within a state park on the Oregon coast.
Here are some additional lighthouse volunteer programs nationwide.
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New Dungeness Light Station
This light station, located along the end of the Dungeness Spit along the Olympic Peninsula within the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge, has had their keeper program since the mid-90s.
“When we first took over responsibility for the station, we were having some of our volunteers stay out there for a couple of weeks or a month at a time,” said Chad Kaiser, the station’s general manager. “After a while, we found that we were running out of people to stay out there because very few people could carve out the commitment to stay out at the light station for a month at a time.”
The time commitment was changed to an entire week. Along with paying fees to the program, volunteers must be members of the New Dungeness Light Station Association. At least four adults, ages 18 and up, are required to be on-site; children can be there as well, but they have to be at least six years old.
They also must be able to go up and down the station’s stairs multiple times a day. Job duties include watering and mowing grass and answering questions about the light station and the surrounding area. They also have to do regular cleanings, such as a public bathroom and the Keeper’s Quarters, their house-like accommodations with four bedrooms, a kitchen, bathrooms and a basement.
Kaiser said that these volunteer keepers often divide up tasks among themselves as to what they’re best at or want to do. “So, the fun about it is you just allocate the job that people want to do on their own. So, you ask about requirements, and you have to be able to do the tasks that are asked of you. And that’s about it, really.”
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Mission Point Lighthouse
Traverse City, Michigan
Michigan has more lighthouses than any other state, and more than a dozen of them have varying volunteer programs.
In Traverse City, the Mission Point Lighthouse has had its volunteer keeper program since around 2010. Located within a park at the tip of Old Mission Peninsula, this circa 1870 lighthouse has exhibition spaces and a gift shop, where keeper program participants run the cash register, answer visitor questions and restock merchandise. They also have to climb up the lighthouse’s 37 steps for light sweeping, vacuuming, and window cleaning, plus do some light grounds upkeep.
Ginger Schultz, the lighthouse’s manager, explained that she looks for highly energetic volunteers who also have experience in working with the general public. “If you have retail experience, that’s great, but I do train them on the first day, and I’m available so that if things come up if I’m not here, they can call or text me.”
The Lighthouse Keeper Program runs from May through November, the park’s busy season. It requires two adult volunteers jointly participating, with their priority within running the gift shop. The volunteer keepers stay within the lighthouse in fully-equipped quarters, for which they pay a fee for their lakefront stay.
The experience can be surprising for the voluntary keepers as well as rewarding. Especially in the summer months, Schultz mentioned that volunteers encounter visitors who come from all over and even in the later hours of the day to access the park and the peninsula’s beach area.
“A lot of times, our volunteers are surprised by how busy our park is,” said Schultz. “It’s hundreds of people every day that they’re talking to, so that’s kind of a big thing.”
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Rock Island State Park, Wisconsin
Established in 1836 in Wisconsin’s Door County, the Pottawatomie Lighthouse was restored with the addition of a museum portion by the Friends of Rock Island State Park from 1999 to 2004. Last year, this group started having volunteer docents, mostly staying on weekends.
Over time, the program would have volunteers staying in the lighthouse for a week in exchange for opening the museum, keeping everything neat and tidy, selling merchandise, and giving guided tours. The museum was designed to reflect how the lighthouse was in 1910, complete with period furnishings and items that the then lighthouse keepers would use.
Applications for what is now the docent program are accepted until Dec. 31 of the following year. A committee begins reviewing them in January and contacts chosen applicants in March and April. Applicants answer questions such as their availability (docents work one week per season), their experience in working with people, and their familiarity with the state park.
There’s also a separate Camp Host program, having volunteers taking care of just about all aspects of the park.
“We provide a robust guidebook, which is available on our website, which explains all of these responsibilities,” said Tina Jacoby, president of the Friends of Rock Island State Park. Once selected for the program, further training is provided by connecting them with the program coordinator and providing a step-by-step explanatory guide and training videos on giving tours.
However, there are some things that volunteers should know about staying at the lighthouse, which is just over a mile from the dock where a passenger ferry goes to Rock Island. There’s no electricity inside, but battery-operated lanterns and ample closet space are provided. An on-site outhouse caters to all restroom needs. When docents are switched out on Sunday mornings, the Friends group helps arrange one UTV ride up to the lighthouse with your gear for the week and your volunteer group.
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Volunteers are also kept busy at this lighthouse, with more than 8,000 visitors said to come from Memorial Day to the second Monday in October.
However, Jacoby reassures that the experience can still be a pleasant one. Most volunteers use their time to disconnect from tech and connect with fellow volunteers. “We provide many board and card games and a full library of books for reading,” said Jacoby. “Similar to actual lighthouse keepers, we keep a log book each year and encourage our volunteers to write their stories in there as a nostalgic way of journaling about their experiences.”
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Wood Island Lighthouse
Maine’s fifth oldest lighthouse, at the mouth of Saco Bay, has many volunteer opportunities through the Friends of the Wood Island Lighthouse. They involve running a boat to and from the island, to roles such as docents, history researchers, and tower guides, doing outdoor maintenance, and selling merchandise.
George Bruns, chairman of the Friends’ executive committee, said a mix of about 100 volunteers is currently involved, with a fair amount being retirees. “But our boat crew is most younger people,” explained Bruns. “And we have younger people who are a part of the group that goes out to the lighthouse doing maintenance and we have several people who are docents who can only do Saturday tours.”
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Role descriptions are listed via the lighthouse’s website, but having the stamina to carry out their tasks is crucial. With training, Bruns said that volunteers shadow others, plus a manual is provided.
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