The Duxbury “Bug Light” sits in Plymouth Harbor, accessible only by boat at the right tide, and then by the ladder attached to the partially submerged structure. But it continues to provide warning of the dangerous shoal off Saquish Head, and has become an iconic site to the South Shore community. The Coast Guard tried once to replace it with a fiberglass light pole, but was thwarted when the community rallied to save it.
Now the government is offering to let the community that has been minding it keep it.
The US General Service Administration last month posted a notice of availability inviting nonprofit and local entities at no cost to serve as steward of this historical structure. It is one of 10 lighthouses in four states being offered as part of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act program. Would-be guardians have until July 14 to state their interest.
“We’d love to,” said Dolly Snow Bicknell, president of Project Gurnet and Bug Lights Inc. (www.buglight.org). “We have been taking care of it for the last 30 years.’’
Bicknell said the preservation group has a license from the Coast Guard, renewable every five years, allowing it to help maintain both Bug Light, more formally known as the Duxbury Pier Lighthouse, and Gurnet Light, located nearby at the end of Gurnet Point. Both structures are technically in the town of Plymouth, despite Bug Light’s formal name.
Bicknell said her nonprofit first formed in 1983 when word got out that the Coast Guard was planning to take the top off Bug Light and replace it with a fiberglass pole with a light on top of it. That was done with the Deer Island Light in Boston, she said.
“It’s not a lighthouse,” Bicknell said of the fiberglass pole.
She said bake sales and ball games, and later capital campaigns, were held and enough money was raised to get the Coast Guard to agree to let the group help maintain Bug Light — no easy task considering its location and the costs. She said $200,000 was spent in the past two years on structural work on both Bug and Gurnet lighthouses, but primarily on Bug Light. The Coast Guard continues to maintain the structures’ navigational tools, including the lanterns, fog horns, and solar panels that generate the electricity, she said.
Bug Light consists of a 47-foot, three-story cast iron caisson-style tower, the first “spark plug” design of its kind. Some have described the structure as being shaped like a coffeepot, particularly before its catwalk was added. Inside the tower, wooden floors have been replaced with metal grates and the furnishings have been removed.
Constructed in 1871 and automated in 1964, Bug Light has been nominated for a place in the National Register of Historic Places and must be maintained according to particular standards.
There are several possible explanations for the nickname, Bicknell said. She said lobsters, sometimes called “bugs,” were plentiful in the surrounding waters, and the lighthouse does look like a bug on the horizon. A former lighthouse keeper, meanwhile, told her “You went buggy out there,” probably because of its small, cramped, isolated living quarters, Bicknell said.
Working with the Coast Guard and the Department of Interior (National Park Service), the General Service Administration is looking for suitable takers for the 10 lighthouses on the preservation list. Notices were posted on national government websites, and, locally, letters were sent to 60 eligible groups.
Patrick Sclafani, New England public affairs officer for the GSA, said if no taker is found, the lighthouse would be put up for auction. Since 2000, more than 100 lighthouses have been sold or transferred out of federal ownership, with 68 transferred at no cost to preservationists and 36 sold by auction to the public, he said.
Bicknell said her group will be submitting an application.
Duxbury selectmen chairman Shawn Dahlen said he would certainly support the group taking ownership of Bug Light. “They have done a considerable amount of fund-raising work over the last dozen years or so,” he said.
Bicknell, who lives in Marshfield, said she was asked in 1993 by Duxbury resident Don Muirhead to help revive the then dormant lighthouse preservation group. Her family’s love of lighthouses was part of the reason she was enlisted to help.
Bicknell’s father, Edward Rowe Snow, a historian and author, was also a “flying Santa,” helping to drop packages of toys, books, and sundries from planes to lightkeepers and their families at the holidays, Bicknell said. In his book “Famous Lighthouses of New England,” first published in 1945, Snow told of some of the adventures at the lighthouses and described the work that was done by Bug Light keeper Fred Bohm during the 1930s.
“In one year he rescued 90 persons, including thirty-six Girl Scouts,” Snow wrote. He retold Bohm’s account of rescuing a woman at supper time one night “when the wind was blowing a fifty-mile gale.” Bohm told Snow the woman was trying to swim to Bug Light from an overturned boat. He said he launched his boat, but she went under, caught in the “devil-tail” seaweed, before he could row to her.
“I threw off my clothes and jumped over after her. I swam and then waded into shallow water with her unconscious in my arms,” Bohm said in Snow’s account. He said her bathing suit had been lost in the water and she initially didn’t respond to first aid. But finally her eyes came open; “Where are my clothes?” were her first words, Bohm told Snow.
“I don’t know, but you are lucky to be alive,” Bohm told her. “By midnight she was safe ashore, wearing borrowed clothing,” Snow wrote.
Bicknell said her group initially was charged with saving Bug Light, but took on Gurnet Light as well in 1999. At the time, she said, some members thought taking care of one lighthouse was plenty, but others saw Gurnet Light, also known as Plymouth Light, as easy to get to, since it’s on land.
Also, Gurnet Light, the oldest freestanding wooden lighthouse in the country and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, came with a keeper’s cottage, which is rented out for up to $2,300 a week in July and August to help raise money for maintaining the lighthouses. The group would eventually like to take ownership of Gurnet Light as well. (Sclafani said Gurnet Light could be offered for ownership transfer in the future, but it’s up to the Coast Guard, which has control of it.)
Bicknell said lighthouses are monuments to our nautical past and her group’s mission is to restore and maintain them.
“The whole point is to save these,” she said. “Once they are gone, they’re gone.”
The other nine lighthouses on the federal preservation list are Keweenaw Waterway Lower Entry Light, Houghton County, Mich.; Stratford Shoal Light Station, Stratford Point, Fairfield County, Conn.; Peck Ledge Light, Norwalk Islands, Fairfield County, Conn.; White Shoal Light, Mackinac County, Mich.; Algoma Light, Algoma, Wis.; Lansing Shoal Light, Mackinac County, Mich.; Spectacle Reef Light, Cheboygan County, Mich.; Gravelly Shoal Offshore Light, Arenac County, Mich.; and Milwaukee Pierhead Light, Milwaukee, Wis.