WASHINGTON - There was a time when the difference for a ship's captain between finding his way and wrecking on a rocky shoal was a thin beam of light piercing the darkness to guide his way.
The ships of the Great Lakes no longer depend on lighthouses to navigate the often-dangerous waters; satellites and Global Positioning System receivers do that job now. But many of the lighthouses that made the lakes safe for navigation a century or more ago still stand, soaring testaments to the maritime history that has shaped our state.
The lighthouses of the Great Lakes no longer guide ships, but they still have great value. That's why more than a decade ago, I joined with then-Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska to introduce the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act. The act established a program to allow transfer of lighthouses from the U.S. Coast Guard, which no longer needed them to aid navigation, to state and local governments and nonprofit organizations.
Sen. Carl Levin
The act celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and in the decade since it became law, we have made great progress in preserving our maritime heritage. Through 2009, 58 lighthouses in more than a dozen states have been transferred to community organizations or government agencies. Nine of those lighthouses are in Michigan, more than any other state. And this year, another 22 lighthouses are scheduled for transfer, including six in Michigan.
Success stories from the last 10 years ring the state:
- A local group took over and restored the DeTour Reef Lighthouse, which stands a mile offshore at the northern end of Lake Huron. Today, visitors can serve as lighthouse keepers for a weekend, getting a taste of what it was like to keep watch of the station's light when it warned mariners of a rocky reef nearby.
- The Sable Point Lighthouse Keepers Association maintains two lights transferred under the act, in Ludington, that are open for public tours.
- And in Port Huron, the city and a private group, Friends of the Fort Gratiot Light, are restoring the Fort Gratiot Light Station, one of the oldest on the lakes and another lighthouse transferred under the act so it can open to the public.
As these and other examples show, preserving these lighthouses is about more than just saving our maritime history, although that is important. They can become important tourist destinations, helping generate activity in one of our state's most important industries. There's a reason lighthouses play such an iconic role in the state's travel promotion efforts: They are an unmistakable marker of Michigan's identity. Visitors from around the world come to see them, and that makes them an important source of tourism revenue.
Our work is not over. While the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act has done much to save important pieces of the nation's history, the job can be daunting for private groups or government agencies. The National Lighthouse Stewardship Act, which I introduced last year with Michigan's Sen. Debbie Stabenow, would establish a pilot program to help meet the costs of lighthouse preservation. I'm hopeful that Congress can take up and pass this legislation and add to the success we've had over the last 10 years.
I hope you'll join me in celebrating the 10th anniversary of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act. These lighthouses once guided ships through storm-tossed waters. Now they can guide us to greater understanding of our maritime heritage, while guiding new visitors to our great state.
Carl Levin is the senior U.S. senator from Michigan.