Ford Reiche, left, and director Rob Apse, near Halfway Rock Light Station during the filming of “The Last Lightkeepers.” Photo courtesy of Rob Apse

Filmmaker Rob Apse grew up familiar with lighthouses, having spent summers at a family home in Georgetown on the midcoast, but like so many people, he never thought really deeply about them.

Then a few years ago, he was making a short documentary about the history of granite quarries on Cape Ann in Massachusetts and traveled to Graves Light in Boston Harbor, which was built of Cape Ann granite. He met the owner, Dave Waller, who bought it in 2013 for more than $900,000 from the federal government and has worked passionately to preserve and restore the 115-year-old historic landmark.

Dave Waller, owner of Graves Light in Boston Harbor, is featured in the film “The Last Lightkeepers.” Photo courtesy of Rob Apse

Apse soon learned that lighthouses all over the country – including most of the 60-plus in Maine – are owned by individuals or nonprofit groups nowadays instead of the federal government. This revelation led him to his next film, “The Last Lightkeepers,” an hourlong documentary that shines a light on the people and groups in New England who maintain lighthouses, which in Maine are iconic symbols of the state’s history and coastline as well as major tourist attractions. One of the “last lightkeepers” Apse focuses on his film is Ford Reiche of Freeport, who bought Halfway Rock Light Station in Casco Bay in 2014 – nearly 40 years after the Coast Guard abandoned it – and has painstakingly restored it. The film began streaming on Amazon Prime in early December.

“I think we gloss over so much about lighthouses, about how important they were to our nation and the remarkable work that so many people have done on their own to restore them,” said Apse, 33, who lives in Gilford, New Hampshire. “I was shocked to learn about how neglected some lighthouses had become before these people stepped in. I’m hoping younger generations will get involved too.”

The film is filled with interviews with lighthouse owners and historians, including some who worry about what will happen when the current “lightkeepers” are gone, or if younger people will have the same passion and sense of purpose when it comes to preserving lighthouses.

“The film is a tribute to these coastal sentinels and the people saving them, but it’s also a plea for people to understand they can help too, to look at lighthouses as something more than historic anachronisms,” said Eric Jay Dolin, author of “Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouses,” who lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and is featured in the film. “I think this film will help. I think people who see it will be inspired by some of the individuals in it.”

FINDING THE RIGHT PEOPLE

Apse grew up in Reading, Massachusetts, but spent summers in Georgetown and also time at a family camp in Acton. He studied filmmaking at Ithaca College and worked for a decade or so in Boston television before taking on film production work for other businesses and starting his own marketing  studio.

When he decided to look into the possibility of a lighthouse documentary more than five years ago, lighthouse owners and buffs quickly directed him to Jeremy D’Entremont, a well-known lighthouse historian who is president of the board for the American Lighthouse Foundation, based in Owls Head, as well as historian of the U.S. Lighthouse Society.

Jeremy D’Entremont, president of the American Lighthouse Foundation, at Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse. Photo courtesy of Rob Apse

D’Entremont helped Apse connect with lighthouse owners and historians, including many who ended up being crucial parts of the film. The film has breathtaking shots of Maine and New England lighthouses and their ocean backdrops, along with large doses of lighthouse history and specific stories of lighthouse lore and the individuals and groups who keep them up today.

Lighthouses were especially important in America from the Colonial period into the early 1800s, before railroads. Shipping was then was the lifeblood of the U.S. economy, and lighthouses helped keep shipping safe. By the 1960s, under the control of the U.S. Coast Guard, most lighthouses were automated and did not require keepers to be stationed there, to keep the light going and watch for ships in distress. GPS and other navigation technology does that hard work now. In the late 20th century, the government looked for ways to transfer ownership of lighthouses to groups and individuals, including with the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000.

Under the act, D’Entremont said, lighthouses that are declared “surplus” can be transferred to a nonprofit group. If no group applies, then individuals can bid to buy the lighthouse. Most often, the transferred lighthouses still have working lights that can aid ships, and those lights are maintained by the Coast Guard. But the lighthouses themselves, including ones on remote islands or ocean ledges, have to be preserved and maintained by the new owner, D’Entremont said. Lighthouse owners – groups and individuals – have spent from tens of thousands to more than a million dollars on restoring various lighthouses.

Ford Reiche, owner of Halfway Rock Light Station in Casco Bay, is a focus of the new documentary “The Last Lightkeepers.” Photo courtesy of Rob Apse

It might be surprising for Mainers to see a list – which D’Entremont has – of who owns some of the best-known lighthouses in the state. Portland Head Light, which draws tourists from around the world, has been owned by the town of Cape Elizabeth since 1993, while Marshall Point Light in Port Clyde, featured in the movie “Forrest Gump,” is owned by the town of St. George. Spring Point Ledge Light near Southern Maine Community College in South Portland is owned by a trust set up to care for the light. Many other towns in Maine own lighthouses, while some are owned by nonprofit groups and several are owned by the National Park Service.

Others are owned by private individuals, like Ford Reiche of Freeport, owner of Halfway Rock Light Station. Reiche and Halfway Rock are featured prominently in the film and end up illustrating many of the points Apse is trying to make about the people who are preserving lighthouses and how difficult the work is.

Reiche, 67, grew up in Maine and has been sailing all his life and involved in various historic preservation projects, including restoring historic homes and a railroad station. He co-founded a Maine company called Safe Handling, a transportation logistics firm, which he has since sold, and is now retired. In an interview for this story, he said he’s still not sure what possessed him to buy Halfway Rock from the government for $283,000 in 2014. The Coast Guard had abandoned it in 1975.

Unlike other lighthouses that are easy to get to and can attract tourists, Halfway Rock’s 76-foot-high granite towner sits on a ledge that is often submerged by the sea, about t10 miles form Portalnd. It’s harder to raise money to restore a lighthouse very few people can get to, said D’Entremont, and it takes somebody with a lot of drive, passion and deep pockets. Someone like Reiche.

Halfway Rock Light Station in Casco Bay is a focus of the new documentary “The Last Lightkeepers.” Photo courtesy of Rob Apse

The cable network Discovery once paid Reiche $45,000 to film him working on the lighthouse, but other than that, he’s funded all the restoration work himself. He says he doesn’t care to count how much he’s spent. The work has included rebuilding the washed away dock and fixing smashed windows and walls. In the film, the lighthouse is shown before Reiche restored it, after years of neglect, literally crumbling into the sea.

The living quarters have been restored, and it is used mostly as a camp. To get to the lighthouse, Reiche has to moor his boat away from the ledge, then use a smaller boat to land on the ramp-like wooden dock in often-rough seas. In the time he’s owned the lighthouse, he’s destroyed seven boats and six outboard motors.

“I really don’t know why I decided to do this. I like complicated things and this qualified,” said Reiche. “It’s one of the great lighthouses in America, somebody had to do this.”

Apse traveled out to Halfway Rock with Reiche, and visited many other New England lighthouses during his five years of filming. At the end of the film, Apse is heard taking about Whaleback Lighthouse in Kittery, one of his favorites, and the work Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses is doing to maintain and preserve it. Apse says he plans to donate a portion of the film’s earnings to the group to assist with preservation costs of Whaleback Lighthouse, located in the Piscataqua River. The film can be rented on Prime for $2.99 or purchased for $9.99.

At the very end of the film, after laying out the precarious position of so many lighthouses and the enormous financial challenges facing volunteers and lighthouse owners today, Apse poses a question:

“What will you do about it?”

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