Bringing to light the story of historic local structure

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Posted: Sunday, March 30, 2014 3:22 am

Lighthouses evoke strong emotions.

Because of its important location, value to navigation and historic nature, the old stone lighthouse at Split Rock in Essex has a story proudly told along the lake.

A lesser-known story has unfolded in the shadow of the old lighthouse and that story may be coming to a close.

In the 1920s, the United States Lighthouse Service, an agency that oversaw all U.S. lighthouses, authorized a steel tower to replace the manned lighthouse at Split Rock. In 1928, a metal tower was transported to the site by boat, erected and put into service.

During the 1930s, the U.S. Lighthouse Service merged with the U.S. Coast Guard.

“The replacement skeletal tower deteriorated over the years, and a plan was set in motion between the Coast Guard and the owner to transfer the light from the steel tower back to the limestone tower,” according to Lighthousefriends.com. “This dream was realized on March 19, 2003, when after seventy years of darkness, a light once again beamed from (the older) Split Rock Lighthouse.”

Moving the light back to the old lighthouse made the metal structure obsolete.

In a press release in January 2014, the Coast Guard announced that they were considering demolishing or removing the metal tower at Split Rock as well as the similar tower at Isle La Motte. The reasons cited are understandable: “Both towers are of an obsolete design that does not meet current Coast Guard requirements for aids to navigation structures and are unsafe for Coast Guard personnel to climb for maintenance. Both towers present a safety hazard to persons on adjacent private properties and both towers present an environmental hazard due to deteriorating paint. Neither of the towers is an active aid to navigation.”

At Split Rock, the Heurich family has owned the stone lighthouse and lighthouse keeper’s dwelling since the 1950s.

This week, Gary Heurich provided several good reasons why the metal lighthouse that served for 75 years is worth saving.

In addition to being the first automated tower to replace a manned lighthouse on Lake Champlain and the tallest tower on the lake, it is in remarkably good shape. The Split Rock tower is a “tank tower,” representative of early acetylene technology.

Acetylene burns 10 to 12 times brighter than any other fuel that was available when the towers were built. The light could be seen for 12 to 13 miles. 

According to Steven Engelhart of Adirondack Architectural Heritage, the towers represent an important generation of navigational history.

“Although the skeleton towers don’t have the same romance or stories connected to them as traditional lighthouses, they do have historical significance and value in their own right.”

Many swimmers, paddlers and birders would contend the towers have new value as wildlife habitat. For several years, ospreys have nested in the metal “basket” at the top of the towers at Split Rock and at Bluff Point on Valcour. It is ironic that at the time they were built, the towers might have been resisted as an unsightly addition to the lakeshore scenery, but now, like fire towers on mountain tops, they have become a part of history.

As the owner of the stone lighthouse and the closest neighbor of the metal tower, Heurich has worked tirelessly to identify an organization that may be interested in preserving the Split Rock tower, either in situ or by moving it to another location.

However, by mutual agreement with the Coast Guard, the deadline to identify a new owner for the steel tower is May 1 and no new owner is in sight.

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed guide who lives in Westport. She leads recreational and educational programs focused in the Champlain Valley throughout the year. Contact her at lakeside5047@gmail.com.

COMMENTS

Any party interested in providing comments on proposed actions or any nonprofit organization willing to assume responsibility for the maintenance and upkeep of the Split Rock tower is encouraged to contact the Coast Guard. 

Comments must be received no later than April 1. 

Comments and inquiries can be sent to: Luke Dlhopolsky c/o Commanding Officer, USCG Civil Engineering Unit, 475 Kilvert St., Suite 100, Warwick, RI 02886; fax, (401) 736-1703; or email, lucas.a.dlhopolsky@uscg.mil.

 

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