I’ll never forget anything about the horrors that millions of us watched take place on live television that fateful day of September 11, 2001. I felt helpless. I wanted to do something to help. But what?
The answer came to me that night as I watched and listened to President Bush’s address to the nation from the oval office, when he said, “America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining.”
At that time, I was president of the American Lighthouse Foundation and in the previous year, we had taken over the endangered Little River Lighthouse in Cutler, Maine – a remote island lighthouse that everyone said could not be saved. But we had been working in partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard to have a light reinstalled in the lantern after it had been dark for 26 years, and it was now ready to be relighted.
Almost immediately, as I heard the president’s words, I decided that Little River Lighthouse would be relighted as a “Beacon of Freedom to the World.” The next day, Kathleen Finnegan and I heated up the telephone lines to garner up the financial and logistical support to make it happen. One thing that I wanted was a flag – one large enough to drape from the top of the tower to its base, something that was hard to find as a wave of patriotism had swept the nation. It seemed every large flag in the country was being sold before I could get one. But, get one I did!
The relighting on October 2, 2001 was an event that anyone who attended would never forget. It was a double wreath-laying ceremony, one by sea, with an armada of vessels led by a Coast Guard buoy tender that was loaded with overflow attendees; and a second ceremony, on land, in the town’s Bell Circle by the fog bell that was once in use at the lighthouse.
The land event, filmed by The History Channel and other television networks, opened with the Machias Memorial High School Band playing the National Anthem followed by an array of speakers including a number of dignitaries, descendants of lighthouse keepers, and former Little River Coast Guard keeper Terry Rowden and his wife Cynthia. I acted as MC of the event. During the placement of the wreaths at the base of the fog bell, the crowd wept as the voice of Lee Greenwood sang out the words to “God Bless the USA.”
As well as many volunteers, there are a number of Coast Guard people that I will always be thankful to, who had helped make the event possible, such as: CWO Preston Logan of ANT Southwest Harbor; CWO Dave Waldrip, the Lighthouse Manager for the 1st Coast Guard District; Chief Boatswain’s Mate Kenneth Hill; Commander Hank Haynes, Group Commander Southwest Harbor; and Ted Dernago, Real Property Manager for the U.S. Coast Guard. Sadly, I’ve lost touch with many of them over the years.
Also, there are many other people who played pivotal roles in the ceremony who are no longer with us, having passed on, such as: CWO Kenneth Black (USCG Ret.), known as “Mr. Lighthouse”; State Representative Martha Bagley; Neil Corbett and Purcell Corbett, sons of Little River Lighthouse keeper Willie Corbett, and so many others, too many to mention here.
I also wonder where those young students from the Machias Memorial High School Band are today, 20 years later, and if this event helped change their lives for the better.
I closed the ceremony on that day with these words, “The relighting of Little River Light is our way of telling the world that the American way of life will never be darkened and will shine on forever to freedom loving people everywhere.”
As we concluded with the singing of “God Bless America,” tears rolled down the faces of the band members, who could barely play their instruments because of the high emotions. Little did any of us know how that day’s events would change our way of life forever.
I wonder how long into the future the relighting ceremony of Little River Lighthouse as a Beacon of Freedom to the World will be remembered; especially as people pass and memories fade.
Editor & Publisher
This story appeared in the
Sep/Oct 2021 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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