James Hyland - This New Englander is the founder and president of The Lighthouse Preservation Society

From Offshore Magazine

Article by Dan Mathers

Lighthouses, says James Hyland, appeal to us on a primitive level. They represent safety, our childhood night-light chasing away the darkness, even a higher power. “There’s definitely a spiritual aspect to this imagery,” he says. “I think at a deep level it’s like God.”

In a day when boaters get coordinates from satellites in space and precise charts show the ocean floor, it is something of a mystery why people buy bumper stickers and calendars celebrating these tired, weathered relics. But set aside your GPS and NOAA charts and imagine being a mariner 100 years ago – sailing along the coast, dark clouds hiding the moon and darker waves tossing your boat about like driftwood. Chills shoot up your spine at the sound of breakers, and you have no idea what rocky dangers might dwell just off your hull. Mariners often lived in fear from moment to moment, hoping to find salvation from a lighthouse. Mariners lived – and died – by lighthouses.

“There were really a lot of fervent prayers said to see that light on the horizon,” says Hyland.

Their importance is obviously not lost on Hyland, who is the founder and president of The Lighthouse Preservaiton Society. Started in 1983, the society is a nonprofit organization that has made a point of keeping lighthouse preservation on the minds of local, state and federal politicians. Over the years, the society’s roughly 1,000 members have sponsored National Lighthouse Day, nominated 30 U.S. lighthouse postal stamps and raised roughly $6 million for more than 160 lighthouse restoration projects. The society has also been awarded the Presidential Achievement Award for its efforts to preserve the nation’s lighthouse heritage.

Hyland’s office is in Dover, New Hampshire, which is just over the border from one of the society’s current restoration projects, the Newburyport Range Lights in Massachusetts. He grew up in Ohio, near the shores of Lake Erie. And he’s quick to point out the waterways of the Great Lakes have lighthouses, too. But during childhood vacations to New Engloand, he fell in love with the Northeast, and moved to New England as an adult.

For as long as he can remember, Hyland has been fascinated with lighthouses, probably because of his love of architecture and history. He’s often quoted as saying: “Lighthouses are to America what castles are to Europe.” The two are similar in many ways. Lighthouses were built like fortresses to withstand all that Mother Nature could throw at them, which is why so many are still standing. There’s also a deep history surrounding lighthouses in America.

During George Washington’s administration, building lighthouses was the first public works project in the country. Washington and other members of the nation’s early government recognized that safe shipping was vital to the develolping nation. There are romantic stories of keepers rescuing wrecked seamen, and other stories of lighthouses being fired upon during times of war.

However, the introduction of the railroad in the late 19th century took much of the emphasis off shipping and lighthouses. Then, the automation of lighthouses in the 20th century made lighthouse keepers obsolete and resulted in many lighthouses being boarded up and forgotten.

Enter Hyland. In 1978, he received a grant from the Hull Lifesaving Museum in Massachusetts to photograph and document New England lighthouses. As he did so, he was saddened by the conditions he found.

Determined to do something, Hyland joined with other lighthouse enthusiasts and founded The Lighthouse Preservation Society. He was soon testifying before Congress, persuading legislators to set aside millions of dollars in grants for lighthouse restoration and asking the Coast Guard to review its lighthouse management policies.

But despite the society’s many successes, Hyland says there’s still a long way to go. Restored lighthouses are expensive to maintain, considering the pounding they take from the elements. The challenge is to find financially viable uses for the buildings to keep bringing money in. Some are being used as retreats; others as inns or bed-and-breakfasts. A program at the Newburyport Range Lights serves gourmet meals at the top of the light. But of the roughly 170 lighthouses in New England, about half of them are offshore. And because they are inaccessible – and not practical for public use – they are the most endangered. Hyland is still trying to find a way to save them.

Almost 30 years after founding The Lighthouse Preservation Society, Hyland is as enamored as he’s ever been with these beacons. His favorite? That would be the Navesink Twin Lights in Highlands, New Jersey, because it looks like a castle, complete with turrets and fortress-like wall connecting the two towers. But his answer is not without some hesitation. “It’s kind of like asking a grandparent who’s your favorite grandchild,” he says. “You love them all.” For more on The Lighthouse Preservation Society, call (800) 727-BEAM.