Photos by Neil Shelly and Ford Reiche
Ford Reiche, who had been around Maine’s Halfway Rock Lighthouse his entire life, never dreamed that one day he might own the lighthouse. Located in the middle of Casco Bay, the 1871 structure was built on one of the least hospitable wave-swept rock clusters on the coast of Maine. And the lighthouse, which had been virtually abandoned since its automation in the mid-1970s, was in awful condition. And he had never even been ashore to tour the lighthouse.
But, one thing led to another, which led to another, which led to another, all eventually leading to his entering a government on-line bidding war in an attempt to buy the lighthouse. And it wasn’t until the bidding had actually started that he finally got the opportunity to actually visit the lighthouse. By the time the nail-biting on-line government auction, which moved at a snail’s space ended in 2014, he had purchased the Halfway Rock Lighthouse for a whopping $283,000. We won’t go into all of the exciting details here. For that part of the story, you’ll have to read Ford Reich’s upcoming book about the lighthouse that will soon be released.
Although he won the auction to purchase Halfway Rock Lighthouse, he soon learned that winning did not grant him ownership. The government could not immediately prove that they owned the land where the lighthouse had been built, and a clear title to the property did not seem to exist. How this reached its conclusion is another fascinating part of the story that can be found in Ford Reiche’s upcoming book.
Once Ford Reiche got ownership, he still had a wide variety of immense obstacles that had to be overcome to restore and save the Halfway Rock Lighthouse. The final restoration is what we have titled “The Miracle Restoration in Casco Bay,” because that’s what this restoration was - a miracle - one that very few people would or could have undertaken.
With the exception of passengers on tour boats, local fisherman, and personnel from the U.S. Coast Guard, most people have never seen the lighthouse up-close. While tens of thousands of people visit lighthouses every year, few people alive today have ever set foot on the Halfway Rock Lighthouse.
During its day, a number of notable men had served as keepers of Halfway Rock Lighthouse. Among them were John T. Sterling, a relative of Robert Thayer Sterling, one of Maine’s most famous lighthouse keepers who authored the book Lighthouses of Maine and the Men Who Kept Them. Another notable keeper was Arthur S. Strout of the famous Strout family of lighthouse keepers who served at Portland Head Lighthouse. But the days of the lighthouse keepers ended in 1975, and the lighthouse was left to the elements.
By the time Ford Reich purchased Halfway Rock Lighthouse, the structure had been on the Lighthouse Digest Doomsday List of the Most Endangered Lighthouses in the United States for a many years, and in 2004, thanks to the initial efforts by Timothy Harrison of Lighthouse Digest, Maine Preservation declared Halfway Rock Lighthouse as One of the Ten Most Endangered Historic Properties in Maine, and the lighthouse was featured on the August 2004 cover of the magazine. When the government offered the lighthouse to a number of nonprofit lighthouse groups and other government agencies, none of them wanted it. They all cited the enormous cost of restoration, the dangers associated with it, and then the tremendous maintenance cost after it was restored. But none of this deterred Ford Reiche – he had a vision and a dream.
Even in the days when Halfway Rock Lighthouse had adequate landing access facilities, landing a boat was often difficult; the lighthouse keepers lost many a load of supplies. Boats can take quite a beating landing on the rock when there is no real boat ramp or landing left, something Ford Reiche soon found out. For the first year, he brought all supplies and people out to the lighthouse without a dock. Several of his boats that got damaged beyond repair have since been repurposed and made into bunk-beds at the lighthouse. Shortly after he bought the lighthouse, the Coast Guard, in congratulating him, said that they hoped he owned a helicopter.
When reconstruction of the dock finally got underway, it involved rebuilding more than half of its 120 feet of length. And even after the dock was completed, getting supplies and men out to the lighthouse required working with the tides and the weather conditions – which could be unpredictable.
Adding to the problems of the restoration was the fact that everything that would be done had to first be approved by the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. And it had to fall into the historical time period of how the lighthouse would have appeared just after World War II, which was the era chosen by Mr. Reiche.
The light tower itself was in bad shape, peeling lead paint was everywhere in the interior, the grout had failed on about 80% of the exterior of the tower, water had been seeping into the tower for years, every blocked-up window needed to be replaced, the boat house and living area exterior was barely held together by loose boards, and there was a large vertical crack in the tower. And those were just the major problems. There were many more.
During the initial stage of interior demolition, living conditions were crude. Ford Reiche and his crew ate and slept in the same area where they were doing the demo. Their first project was to get everything water tight before the first winter set in. This required getting tools, provisions, gear, and all materials to the lighthouse by one boat, and then transferring everything to a smaller boat to get it all onto to the rock. Every trip was planned out in advance, and with each trip, the boat was always loaded to its maximum capacity. No trip could be wasted; forgetting something was not an option.
One of the biggest challenges was getting the scaffolding out to the lighthouse that would be needed by the crew from J.B. Leslie Masonry to repair the exterior of the tower. And scaffolding does not come cheap. There was a $10,000 charge to erect it, a $100 daily rental fee, and then another $5,000 to take it down. Also, Ford Reiche would have to make his own arrangements to get the scaffolding out to the rock, another of the many obstacles that had to be overcome.
Any barge delivering scaffolding to Halfway Rock would require a skillful barge pilot and crew. As Ford Reiche wrote, “They would need to tie up directly against our dock ramp while a forklift and legion of workers would transfer thousands of pieces of pipe staging. This would require perfect weather. And as I would learn, it would need to be done start to finish in a two hour window when high tide could afford just enough water for the draft of the barge.” But getting a barge operator who would take on the project, and at a reasonable cost, seemed impossible until he found Lionel Plant Co., who would do the job - and at a reasonable price.
It took three days of transporting the scaffolding crew back and forth to the rock to unload and assemble the staging. Reiche writes, “As the scaffolding was being unloaded, piece by piece - thousands of them to be piled in heaps everywhere we could find space.” Ford Reiche said it looked like an ant farm. But by lunch time on the third day, they realized that they did not have enough scaffolding - one more obstacle that had to be overcome. Reiche said, “But despite the snafu, good humor prevailed,” and eventually more scaffolding was ordered and delivered. Now it was up to the masons to restore the brick tower.
During all this time, other work was continuing on an on-going basis to restore the rest of the light station to its former glory. Interestingly, and perhaps most amazing, was that the pace of the work was literally fueled by the schedule of a TV film crew who were working on a documentary about the restoration for a TV show called “Building Off the Grid” that appears on the DIY Network.
By the fall of 2017, the fast-paced restoration at Halfway Rock Lighthouse had come to a completion. The lighthouse had now come full circle. As a special treat, Ford Reich had his 88-year-old father along with former Halfway Rock Lighthouse keeper Ken Rouleau brought out to the lighthouse by helicopter for the last day of filming by the TV crew. Although very familiar with the lighthouse, Ford Reich’s father had never before set foot on the rock, and Ken Rouleau had not been back since having been stationed there in the early 1960s. Their visit to see first-hand the miraculous transforming restoration project at Halfway Rock Lighthouse would not have happened without the commitment, dedication, and leadership of Ford Reiche.
Over the years, we have written about numerous lighthouse restoration projects, most of which had numerous obstacles to overcome, but not many with these types of obstacles, and few of them moved at such an amazing pace as did the saving of Halfway Rock Lighthouse. Well into the future, most people may forget how fast the restoration of Halfway Rock Lighthouse was done, but they will always remember how well the restoration was done, and the man who took it on.
Ford Reiche has left a legacy for future generations in the saving of Maine’s historic Halfway Rock Lighthouse. He can be proud.
Photos by Neil Shelly and Ford Reiche.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2018 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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