CASCO BAY – From his home in Cape Elizabeth, Scott Raspa can see Ram Island Ledge Light taking a pounding during nor’easters, or standing sentinel in calmer seas.
On Thursday, the software consultant joined others on a Coast Guard vessel for a closer view of the lighthouse, about a mile northeast of Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth. The visitors were registered bidders in a federal government auction of the five-story tower, which has helped mark the main channel to Portland Harbor since 1905.
Conserving the lighthouse was a common motive among the bidders. A couple of them also thought ownership of the lighthouse could dovetail with their business plans. One had a notion that it could serve as a bed and breakfast for adventurous types, but wasn’t yet certain what he would do. All seemed charmed by the prospect of owning a wind-swept lighthouse off Maine’s rocky coast.
The Coast Guard doesn’t have the budget to maintain all of the lighthouse towers that house navigational aids, which in this case consists of a light and a foghorn. Under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, lighthouses are offered to groups such as local governments and nonprofits at no cost before being put up for auction. The Coast Guard continues to maintain the navigational aids in lighthouse towers that are sold.
Raspa likes the idea of being the owner of a nearby lighthouse, with all its mystery and history. He doesn’t yet have a concrete plan should that become the case.
“We were thinking about having cocktail parties there. I don’t know if that’s possible,” he said.
That might be difficult, as he and the other would-be visitors learned Thursday. The eight prospective bidders, along with an assortment of companions, were hoping to inspect the inside of the tower, but the seas were not calm enough.
The plan had been for a smaller Coast Guard boat to take a few people at a time from the 49-foot boat that brought them out from South Portland. Since the skeletal pier at the lighthouse is no longer functional, the smaller boat would have essentially beached itself on the ledge, where the visitors would have jumped onto the rocks. Then they could have climbed the exterior 30-foot ladder to get inside the tower.
But that plan would have required seas of about a foot rather than the 3-foot seas seen Thursday morning. So instead of the hoped-for open house, the event was more of a drive-by viewing.
Some other things could make lighthouse ownership challenging. There are no utilities, the new owner will have to maintain the property in accordance with historic preservation guidelines, and the lighthouse is being sold as-is, without any estimate of how much may be needed for repairs.
The date for a “soft” closing will be announced in the coming days, said Meta Cushing, a program manager with the General Services Administration in Boston, which is administering the auction. More information about the auction is available at www.auctionrp.com.
It wasn’t clear whether registered bidders — those who had put down a $10,000 deposit representing the minimum bid requirement — would get another chance to visit the lighthouse. The Coast Guard may offer to take them again, weather and staff levels permitting, but there was no guarantee that would happen before the auction closed.
On Thursday, the prospective bidders couldn’t see the lighthouse’s enameled-brick interior, the stairs winding up the inside or the light in the cupola. But they were able to view the granite blocks making up the 72-foot-tall tower, the diamond-paned windows outside the beacon and the 5-foot swells around the ledge as Boatswain’s Mate First Class Greg Lewis circled the boat around.
One snowy-haired, blue-eyed gentleman from Maine — one of several prospective bidders who declined to identify themselves — said if he owned Ram Island Ledge Light, he would take care of it, perhaps visiting it a couple of times year, and leave it in his will to a nonprofit group.
“Lighthouses are American history and legacy. To me, it’s like the country. It’s built to withstand anything — hurricanes,” he said.
Jane and Scott Lucas, avid boaters from Weston, Conn., have a fledgling nonprofit called Lucas Lighthouse Association that they hope can acquire lighthouses and maintain them for the public’s benefit.
“For the sake of preserving these things, this could be our gift back,” Jane Lucas said.
Chris Homer, owner of Dr. Newton’s Naturals, a South Portland-based supplements business, and his vice president of marketing, Andrew Majewski, were thinking that ownership of the lighthouse could help solidify the company’s Maine roots in consumers’ minds. The lighthouse could serve as a tangible symbol of the link between the notion of high-quality products and the high quality of life that Maine offers, Majewski said.
And then there was that other impulse.
“Who wouldn’t want to own a lighthouse in Maine?” he asked.
Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: