‘send a gleam across the wave.’
LIGHTHOUSES: STEEPLES OF THE SEA
Just off the coast of my adopted home state of North Carolina, the Gulf Stream, moving warm water northward, meets the Labrador Current, bringing cold water south. Excellent fishing is one result, but the other is a treacherous stretch of sea that has claimed so many ships and souls it is nicknamed “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
It is along this storied shore that the candy-striped Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has stood since 1870. At about 200 feet, it is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States and the second-tallest in the world. It replaced a shorter tower that was completed in 1802 but later deemed inadequate.
As storm after storm ate away at the Carolina coastline, the beaches and dunes protecting the lighthouse gradually disappeared until the beacon, in peril of collapse, was abandoned in 1935. What the sea takes away, though, it sometimes gives back, and years of sand accretion put the structure a hundred yards inland again by the time it was reactivated during World War II. It stood safely for another 50 years until the sea repeated its cycle and once again threatened to undermine the light’s foundation.
This time, though, the public would not countenance the possibility of losing its beloved landmark to the elements. Petitions were signed, donations were raised and funds were allocated, leading to “the move of the millennium” in 1999. The 5,000-ton structure was jacked up, loaded onto a trailer and moved nearly 1,000 yards inland to the location where it stands today.
There’s something magical about lighthouses, something that captures the attention, even devotion, of many people. For 19th-century French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel, it was the optical challenge of designing a lens to make the faint flame of an oil lamp visible for miles out to sea. Early lightkeepers often endured months of isolation, even risk of death, to keep the flame burning through hurricanes and harsh winters.
For landlubbers today, lighthouses often are mere tourist attractions. For mariners, though, a lighthouse is more. Even in an era when sophisticated electronics are supplanting traditional aids to navigation, lighthouses continue to provide comfort and assurance, particularly to those in distress. The beacons seem to fulfill a deeper, more spiritual role as well, and the more creative among us sometimes look to them as a muse, feeling inspired to celebrate them in story and song.
Each December, I look forward to receiving a Christmas letter from Mark Fitzgerald, a talented yacht designer (www.markfitzmarine.com) and a bit of a philosopher, too. Mark lives on a stretch of the Maine coast where lighthouses and village churches are almost as abundant as lobsters. One of his messages, dealing with spiritual parallels between church steeples and lighthouses, has stuck with me for 20 years. In 1998, he wrote, “a church steeple is to the land what a lighthouse is to the sea, leading weary travelers away from hazard and safely to port.” His observation echoes that of Philip Bliss, a 19th-century hymn writer who used a lighthouse as a metaphor for salvation: “Brightly beams our Father’s mercy/From His lighthouse evermore…Send a gleam across the wave/Some poor fainting, struggling seaman/ You may rescue, you may save.”
It’s no coincidence, I think, that the maritime terms salvage and salvor, and the word salvation—both temporal and eternal—all come from the same Latin root word meaning “preservation or deliverance from harm, ruin or loss.” Perhaps it is that hope, always promised and so often fulfilled, creates a special place on our hearts for these towering steeples of the shore.