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Museum resumes push for lighthouse


Following an eight-year hiatus, the Sheldon Museum is resuming efforts to lease and restore the Eldred Rock lighthouse.

The museum’s Eldred Rock committee will send a letter of interest to the U.S. Coast Guard, seeking a five-year license to work on the structure built in 1905. It sits on a 2.4-acre island in Lynn Canal 20 miles south of Haines.

Committee chair Pam Randles said the museum is committed to the project, despite a restoration price tag likely to exceed $1 million. “That’s the biggest concern all of us have: Are we going to be able to pull the financing off? There’s energy and expertise on our committee, but there’s going to have to be money – big money.”

Federal, state and local agencies are eligible to send letters of interest in the site, as are non-profit corporations, educational agencies and community development organizations. The deadline for letters is Aug. 25.

Randles said the museum has sent letters three times previously, but the licensing process became entangled in a dispute between agencies concerning another lighthouse in the region.

This time, the museum has the support of the state’s two U.S. senators and the Maritime Exchange of Juneau, she said. A previous business plan developed by the museum envisioned tours, a museum and a hostel for kayakers there. Besides the octagonal, three-story lighthouse building, structures at the site include a boathouse, carpenter shop and helicopter pad.

Randles said while the restoration project is a big undertaking, she is encouraged by continued interest in the site, reflected by inquiries to the museum about its use. The museum has official rights to the property, but some federal agencies erroneously cite the museum as holding a lease to it.

“People have contacted us wanting to hold weddings there and birthday parties. Somebody was willing to rent it from us for a fishing trip. We can’t give permission because we don’t hold the lease,” she said.

There’s an even greater interest in the site from people outside the immediate area, she said. “There’s a subset of people from all over the world who really enjoy this stuff. They’re interested in maritime history and lighthouses. They’re fascinated by the remote locations and the history of these places.”

Museum officials last surveyed the condition of the buildings on a trip in April 2001. At that time, the lighthouse building, constructed of redwood timbers and plaster, wasn’t in bad shape, Randles said. Since then, the front door fell off the hinges and some steps are rotting, but the Coast Guard describes the building as “solid and in good shape.”

“It’s a really well-built building considering where it was built and when it was built,” Randles said.

Randles said the single, biggest expected expense would be building a type of landing facility for boats to pull up alongside the island. The rock never had a dock. Instead, a short railroad was built to either side of the island. Freight was loaded onto rail cars from skiffs off boats that anchored out.

“We hope to make it more accessible to people and part of the plan is to build a dock, but it’s going to take a lot of engineering to decide what kind of landing facility to build. It’s not an easy situation,” she said.

If its letter of interest is accepted, the museum will be required to submit a business plan, management plan, preservation plan and financial plan to the Coast Guard to get a final go-ahead for work. Randles said some plans written previously may have to be revised, due to inflation and other variables.

The lighthouse at Eldred Rock is unique in that, unlike others in the region, it wasn’t rebuilt at mid-century, and is mostly true to its original construction. The local museum also has on display the structure’s original Fresnel lens, which was salvaged from a dump, she said.

The museum took on the project in order to keep the site open to the public and to preserve the history of the site, she said. “Part of our mission as a museum is to protect and preserve local monuments.”

The Coast Guard has been leasing out lighthouses nationwide since the 1980s, said Connie Callahan, Pacific area lighthouse program manager.

“It’s a great program. The Coast Guard doesn’t have the funding to maintain them. So we try to license out as many as we can to protect them.” It’s hard to get funding for buildings that are remote and don’t immediately affect people and their safety, she said.

The Coast Guard owns 290 lighthouses, 61 of which are in the Pacific area. Callahan said organizations that lease them use the property mainly for historic tours, hostels and inns.

“In some sense, it’s (leasing) an interim thing…we want to no longer own them.” Through a similar application process, the Coast Guard tries to hand over ownership once the property’s environmental hazards are addressed, she said. “But again, getting the funds to address those takes time. It’s a slow process.” Eldred Rock is not ready for the transfer of ownership, she said.

The main lighthouse building is 52 feet in diameter, with offices and a kitchen downstairs, bedrooms upstairs and, in a half-floor on top, a redwood cistern that collected rainwater off the roof. The lighthouse beacon sits atop the building in a cupola.

If its letter to the Coast Guard is successful, the museum will win a five-year license to the property and will be required to halt deterioration of the structure, restore and maintain it. Money earned on the building must be spent on restoration. The Coast Guard would continue to maintain the light atop the building.

Eldred Rock was maintained by resident watchmen for most of the 20th century. It was automated in 1973 and some of the men who worked as lighthouse keepers there are still alive, Randles said.