Press-Republican

December 19, 2012

Lighthouse expert donates books to museum

By JEFF MEYERS
Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — North Country resident George Clifford has maintained a strong interest in the lighthouses of Lake Champlain over the years.

His attraction to these historic structure resulted in a book he penned several years ago that outlined the role each one has played in the history of local maritime travel.

NEW EDITION

Clifford, who lived most of the past four decades on Cumberland Head and was instrumental in organizing the Cumberland Head Tomorrow citizen watchdog group, recently published a third edition to the volume and has donated the rights to his work to the Clinton County Historical Society.

“I’m 80, so I talked to the Historical Society about (donating) the book. I knew there was a strong need to preserve the existing lighthouses,” he added, noting specifically his fondness of the lighthouse that sits on the point of Cumberland Head and is now protected by private ownership.

“I worked a lot with the Coast Guard to make sure they would all be protected.”

Melissa Peck, director and curator for the museum, said she was delighted with Clifford’s donation.

“By receiving the rights, CCHA can continue to publish his work, ensuring that the stories surrounding the individual lighthouses on Lake Champlain will continue to be told.”

BRINGING BACK LIGHTS

As lighthouse keepers were replaced by automated lights placed atop metal towers constructed nearby in the early 1900s, the lighthouses themselves became archaic.

But Clifford was one of the primary movers in returning the lights to the lighthouses during the more recent past, as the Coast Guard turned to solar-powered lights in the buildings and abandoned the metal towers.

Clifford was also influenced to write his history by a poster sketched by Sid Couchey in the 1990s that depicted the varied lighthouses on the lake.

“He was a wonderful guy,” Clifford said of the popular North Country artist, who died earlier this year. “I enjoyed meeting Sid.”

The two lighthouse buffs met through another mutual friend and expert in regional history, Addie Shields, the former county historian, who died in 2009.

‘INTRUMENTAL’

Roger Harwood, former president of the Historical Society Board of Directors, met Clifford during a presentation Clifford gave on Valcour Island, which has long been a personal interest of Harwood’s.

“George was interested in coaxing the Coast Guard to put the light back in Bluff Point (lighthouse),” he said. “He was instrumental in making sure this took place.”

The abandoned metal tower still stands a few dozen yards south of the lighthouse, but now it has been adopted by a family of osprey, Harwood noted.

PILOT PAST

Clifford retired to the Plattsburgh area with his wife, Carolyn, in the 1970s following a career as a fighter pilot, serving just after the Korean War and through the Vietnam War.

“I think of myself as a fighter pilot, but my father flew in the First World War,” Clifford said of his inherited interest in flying.

Clifford’s leather flying jacket sits on a seat in his living area. Emblazoned on the worn jacket’s chest is the flying insignia of the Royal Flying Corps, a precursor of Britain’s Royal Air Force. Clifford’s father traveled to Toronto to sign up with His Majesty’s fighting force following the German sinking of the Lusitania because the United States had not yet entered the war.

Clifford entered the military himself after two years at Pittsburgh University. He learned to fly several types of fighters as the Air Force moved toward the usage of modern jet aircraft.

He was transferred to Plattsburgh Air Force Base late in his career and decided to settle here for good, leading him to his future interest in Lake Champlain and its lighthouses.

Email Jeff Meyers: jmeyers@pressrepublican.com