Beacon thrill: What it’s like to live in a lighthouse
The inside of Nick Korstad’s inn looks much like one you’d find on Cape Cod — old paintings hang on brick walls, and antique furniture fills the cozy quarters. But getting to his location can be challenging, and you and your sweetheart will be on your own.
Unlike an inn in Barnstable, Borden Flats Lighthouse, which Korstad has owned for three years, doesn't have running water. There is no Wi-Fi and no complimentary beach pass, and he certainly isn't going to serve you pancakes in the morning.
Borden Flats is one of several privately owned lighthouses in New England. It's surrounded by water at the mouth of the Taunton River in Fall River, and to Korstad's account, it can be a bit of pain to take care of.
"There always seems to be this romantic notion of owning a lighthouse," Korstad said as he climbed from his boat onto the ladder leading up to the property. "But it's not like that at all. It's a lot of work."
Since Korstad, 32, bought the lighthouse at public auction for $56,000 restoring it has been his full-time job. Every day he can, he's lugging equipment out on his boat, painting the sides, doing repairs, dusting, mopping — you name it.
But that's the only way to do it. Hiring a contractor to work in the middle of the water would cost him tens of thousands of dollars, and that's just money he doesn't have. Besides, Korstad said, he enjoys it.
"I don't know, I think I must've been a lighthouse keeper in another life," Korstad said. "I've always been obsessed."
Many of these lighthouses sell for under $100,000. The most expensive in New England's history was the remarkable sale of Graves Island Light Station in Boston Harbor, which sold for $933,888 in September.
Buying waterfront property for under $1 million might seem like a no-brainer, but many lighthouse owners would beg to differ.
"I can't emphasize enough the inconvenience of owning a remote lighthouse in the middle of the ocean," said Casey Jordan, who owns Goose Rocks Lighthouse off the coast of New Haven, Maine.
Jordan, 51, bought this light in 2006 with the intention of fixing it up herself. She said she knew she was basically buying an empty canvas — there were no amenities and really nothing in place when she got the lighthouse — but she transformed it.
To get to the lighthouse, in which she spends her summers, Jordan drives 5½ hours from New Milford, Conn., to Rockland, Maine, and hops on a ferry. After a ride that takes a little more than an hour, she gets to the island of North Haven, where she keeps her boat docked. She drives her boat to the light (the trip takes at least 10 minutes), climbs a ladder, and she's home.
Now imagine doing it with furniture, tools, plywood, and sundries.
But the hundreds of barge trips and hours spent en route are worth it, Jordan said, for the feeling she gets when she sits outside by the railing and takes in the view.
"They say you need to stop and smell the roses, but here you stop and smell the low tide," she said.
When she's at her lighthouse, she shuts off her phone and gives in to nature, she said.
"I'm not one of these yoga meditation people, but you really do figure out who you are and what you like to do out there," Jordan said. "There is kind of a Stephen King-like excitement to it. And it forces you to sit and relax."
In 2000, Congress passed the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, making the private ownership of these properties possible through a unique partnership among the General Services Administration, Coast Guard, and National Park Service. Each group plays a role in the auction, maintenance, and protection of the structures, according to GSA representatives.
Back in the day, lighthouses were constructed with keepers in mind. They would stay on the lighthouse grounds, come whipping wind or high seas, lighting the light and blasting the foghorn to guide ships to safety.
With new technology, however, this is no longer necessary; the Coast Guard only has to check the equipment (foghorn, light, battery cells, solar panels) every few months at lighthouses still necessary for navigation.
Here's where the relationship gets rocky.
Maintaining these gigantic structures is expensive, and "the structures themselves are often no longer critical to the Coast Guard's mission," according to the GSA. With no live-in keepers, who is going to take care of them?
When the Coast Guard identifies "excess" lights, the GSA makes them available to nonprofits, local agencies, historic preservation groups, and community development organizations — at no charge. It's an extensive process with a host of requirements, including a promise to preserve the structure's historic integrity. If there are no successful applications, people like Korstad and Jordan step in.
The properties are put up for online auction, and anyone can buy them, according to Barbara Salfity, branch chief for the GSA. Many of the same requirements apply.
A number of lights are available at a time. Halfway Rock Light Station and Boon Island Light Station in Maine and Minot's Ledge Light in Scituate are on the auction block.
Extroverts and technology junkies need not apply.
Jordan said the longest she has spent at a time on the light is five days. She couldn't take much more. She gets stir-crazy.
Living in a light in the middle of nowhere is desirable for an introvert, according to Sally Snowman, 63, the last Coast Guard lighthouse keeper in the United States — and the 70th keeper in Boston Light's history. The others were men.
"I love to read. I love to write. I like sitting by myself," Snowman said. "This suits me very well. If my husband wants to see me, I tell him to come to the island."
Imagine going without the Internet, HBO, and cell service. While it's nice in theory, some people probably can't handle going without their Dunkin' Donuts iced coffee and "Game of Thrones" for long periods of time.
Korstad said he couldn't live without the modern trappings.
"I lived out there for six months, but it was too much," he said. "It was very isolating."
Despite all that, each time Korstad, Jordan, and Snowman get off the boat, climb the ladder, and step onto the concrete landing it's as thrilling as the first time.
"Every time, I get that excitement of a kid at Disney World," Jordan said. "You either get it or you don't. People either think it's the coolest thing in the world or you're insane."