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Historic Great Lakes lighthouses up for auction by federal government

Poe Reef lighthouse in the middle of a body of water
GSA Auctions

The federal government is auctioning off three historic Great Lakes lighthouses. The lighthouses are Poe Reef on Lake Huron, Ontonagon Breakwater on the channel between the Ontonagon River and Lake Superior, and Superior Entry between Superior, WI, and Duluth, MN.

The United States General Services Administration has all three lighthouses listed on their website. Starting bids are $5,000 for Ontonagon, $10,000 for Superior entry, and $50,000 for Poe Reef. Superior Entry is the only one with any bids, with one bid as of now.

So how did these lighthouses end up for auction? That’s because of the National Lighthouse Preservation Act. The act created a way for the government to deaccess old lighthouses while preserving their historical value. The GSA and the National Parks Service advertise the availability of the old lighthouses, and then accept applications from various historical preservation groups. Once the applications are reviewed and a group is selected, the National Parks Service’s Maritime Heritage Program transfers the lighthouse to the chosen group, with caveats for standards of maintenance.

Mike Vogel is a co-chair of the American Lighthouse Council, which helped the GSA develop the National Lighthouse Preservation Act. He says the act has helped transfer over 100 lighthouses through the program.

“At the end of the day, there are some lighthouses that don’t get applications, or at least applications from people the government deems responsible stewards. What happens then is that they come out the bottom of the process and they go up for public auction,” Vogel says. “That usually happens when you have an offshore lighthouse that is difficult to reach and expensive to restore. There have been some success stories with auctions, and there have been some people who realized they’re in over their heads.”

Brent Tompkins has experience with the GSA’s auctions. He bought White Shoal Light from the government after winning an auction on the GSA’s website in September of 2016. What kind of people are bidding on lighthouses, you may ask?

“Crazy!” Tompkins says. “They have to have a very high tolerance for risk, very adventurous. They are the type of people to fly by the seat of their pants. I’ve met a lot of them, and I can pretty much guarantee that most of them are like that. A lot of them do it just for the adventure.” For himself, personally, he loved “the logistics of it all: everything being ten times harder offshore than it is on land, and we got more than we bargained for on that.”

White Shoal Light is the only red and white barber pole lighthouse in the United States, and it’s an offshore light, meaning no connection to a dock or pier or any land at all. It’s about 20 miles from the Mackinac Bridge. Tompkins and his business partner, Mike Lynch, both licensed contractors, are working to restore the lighthouse and open it to the public. Tompkins says anyone else looking to restore an offshore lighthouse needs to have access to the proper resources.

“You need to be well-equipped with several boats, you need to be comfortable on the water in all conditions, and just expect the unexpected. Every time you think you're going to get something done, usually you get something thrown at you, something breaks down: it's a lot of work.”

Vogel says Poe Reef, which is an offshore lighthouse six miles off the coast of Cheboygan, is a hard sell for these exact reasons. 

“It's an expensive process because getting the materials to an offshore lighthouse is a difficult thing, let alone doing the restoration work to historic standards.” As for bidders, he says, “I'm not sure what the Great Lakes lighthouses will draw in terms of bidders. Hopefully, the lighthouses get saved at the other end of the process.”

Risks of other lighthouses like Ontonagon Breakwater and Superior Entry include proximity to the public and graffiti, according to Vogel: not necessarily what one might want from a lighthouse retreat. He says many buyers opt to turn the lighthouses into residences, or open them to the public, as Tompkins and Lynch are doing.

“Generally speaking, we don’t see that the outside appearance of a lighthouse changes that much under private ownership. Most people that buy them, buy them as lighthouses and want to save them in the configuration that make them the unique places that they are.”

If you or anyone you know is interested in buying a historic Great Lakes lighthouse, be sure to check out realestatesales.gov and click on lighthouses.

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