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Lighthouse Commissioned By George Washington Is Automated

August 7, 1989

............................................................................ (AP) _ The last Coast Guard lighthouse keeper in Maine lowered his flag Monday and an old boat sounded its horn three times in salute as a lighthouse commissioned by George Washington became automated.

″I can think of nothing more noble,″ said Rear Adm. Richard C. Rybacki, commander of the 1st Coast Guard District in Boston, as the Portland Head Light became the last Coast Guard lighthouse in Maine to be automated. ″The lighthouse symbolizes all that is good in mankind. We are not here to celebrate an ending. We are here to immortalize a tradition.″

It was the bicentennial of the day that Washington signed a bill letting the federal government start building lighthouses. The Portland Head Light, a white stone tower, was first lit in 1791, guiding ships past the jagged rocks that flank the best channel into Portland Harbor.

On Monday, light keeper Davis Simpson lowered the flag for the last time, and the machinery that will turn on the lights and sound the foghorns automatically were officially in control.

According to the Lighthouse Preservation Society, the nation has about 800 lighthouses, but only about a half-dozen still have keepers.

The Coast Guard band played and several Coast Guard cutters gathered nearby in Casco Bay.

A restored light ship, the Nantucket, sounded its horn three times and the lighthouse answered three times to honor those who have operated the tower, which after several remodelings stands 101 feet above sea level.

Lighthouse lovers were saddened to see the Portland Head Light go unmanned, yet happy to see its grounds being turned over to the town of Cape Elizabeth, which wants to make the place a museum.

Rybacki said the automation was necessary to better protect ships and to cost taxpayers less money.

″We don’t row surfboats out to make rescues, and we don’t get our mail from the Pony Express,″ Rybacki told hundreds of people who gathered for the ceremony.

Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, two years ago wrote legislation that set up the Bicentennial Lighthouse Fund, which provides grants for preserving and restoring lighthouses.

″Standing at land’s end through two centuries, they have symbolized safety, security, heroism and faithfulness,″ Mitchell said.

Lighthouse historian F. Ross Holland Jr. said the beacons have evolved considerably from the days when they began as elevated bonfires to the 1980s, when some lighthouses are operated by solar-powered batteries.

Now, he said, ″The major issue that will face lighthouses in the future, and probably not too far off, is erosion.″

Global warming, rising water and shifting shorelines may eventually take their toll on the towers that guided generations of sailors, he said.

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