Modern beacons rule the coasts, but lighthouses keep hold of the heart
April 19, 1997
(CNN) -- Lighthouses have been called the most altruistic structures ever built. After almost 300 years of guiding ships along the U.S. coasts and Great Lakes, their usefulness is waning. But they have never lost their power to ignite poetry in those who visit them.
"Lighthouses are to America what castles are to Europe. They're among the oldest standing structures in (the U.S.)," says Tim Harrison, editor of the Maine-based "Lighthouse Digest."
When the United States became a country, 12 lighthouses kept vigil over settled shores, according to Wayne Wheeler, founder of the U.S. Lighthouse Society. Over the years, he says more than 2,000 light stations were built. Today, the National Park Service estimates about 634 lighthouses remain, 405 of which are in service.
Automation has virtually eliminated the romantic tradition of lighthouse keepers -- salty, solitary souls guiding ships safely through treacherous storms. And electronic pings are replacing the mournful drone of the foghorn calling sailors home.
Yet, in the dusk of their era, lighthouses shine as brightly as ever in the popular imagination, inspiring passionate efforts to rescue them from beach erosion, weather damage and vandalism.
"To some people, [lighthouses] are a lighted picket fence against the dark sea that so many sailors never returned from," says Wheeler. "Usually they are in a beautiful setting ... so to some, they become a symbol of the honeymoon or family vacation or happy time. To some people, it's religious -- a guiding light, the lighthouse points to the sky like a steeple."
Here are six U.S. lighthouses that testify to the wonder, mystery and danger of life on the shore -- from the nation's tallest lighthouse, just 150 feet away from falling to ruin, to a secluded Oregon perch said to be haunted by a heartbroken mother.