Timothy E. Harrison was a veteran lighthouse keeper. That is, he whole-heartedly devoted his life for an impressive 34 years to preserving and keeping lighthouse history alive with a singleness of purpose and dedication that rivaled the most faithful and committed lighthouse keepers who ever served in the U.S. Lighthouse Service over its 235-year history. What those keepers did for their physical lighthouses and mariners at sea, Tim did for lighthouse history and future generations.
And if there were a modern lighthouse service “efficiency” award given to a lighthouse historian and preservationist who shined above the rest in fulfilling his duties, Tim would have received it every year for the sheer amount of exceptional work he accomplished, which is so evident in the almost 300 issues of Lighthouse Digest magazine he published.
The Early Years
Tim’s love of lighthouses began as a small boy, fishing off of the pier with his bamboo pole next to Michigan’s Holland Harbor Lighthouse; however, it wasn’t until 1989 that lighthouses forever altered his life’s course. He and his wife, Kathleen Finnegan-Harrison, took a trip to Maine that year, leading them to research the lights of New England, which resulted in the publication of a book, Lighthouses of Maine and New Hampshire, in 1991.
Through this venture, they both realized that there was a great need to archive and tell the stories of these sentinels and especially of the keepers who manned them in the past. As Tim was often fond of saying, if you save the building without preserving the memories of the people who lived in them, you are only saving a cold stone structure.
Consequentially, it was only logical for them to create a means whereby these memories and stories could be widely circulated and preserved for the future, which led to the inception of Lighthouse Digest magazine in May of 1992. At the outset, there were only 34 paid subscribers, but that number quickly grew to 10s of 1000s by a decade later with a readership reaching every U.S. state and extending internationally to 17 countries.
The next few years after Lighthouse Digest was created marked a major time in the lighthouse preservation movement that was burgeoning across the country. Many people joined the ranks and Tim recognized a need to bring an awareness of lighthouses into every American home. So, in 1993, he and Kathleen founded the Lighthouse Depot gift store in Wells, Maine, which offered the largest selection of lighthouse-related merchandise in the world.
At the height of its popularity, the Lighthouse Depot had 64 employees, and catalogs were mailed to over five million households annually in the United States. The Lighthouse Depot was a regular stop on daily tour bus schedules to Maine and many times Tim would board the buses to give mini-lighthouse lectures to the captive audiences before they would be let off to shop in the store.
Organizing, Restoring and Fundraising
Beyond archiving and disseminating knowledge through Lighthouse Digest and selling merchandise through the Lighthouse Depot, Tim also recognized the growing need to promote, form, and fund lighthouse projects and groups to help with the preservation of the structures as well.
One avenue for directing public attention toward lighthouses that were in danger of being permanently lost through neglect was started in 1993 when Lighthouse Digest first published the official Doomsday List of Endangered Lighthouses. Through articles in the magazine and cover photos of these lighthouses, Tim was able to showcase their plight and strongly advocate for their survival.
The following year in 1994, Tim co-founded and served as president of the New England Lighthouse Foundation, later becoming the American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF), which is still active in Rockland, Maine today. Under Tim’s leadership, ALF became the first nonprofit to obtain ownership of a Maine lighthouse, Little River Light, under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act. Tim was particularly proud of relighting Little River Light only three weeks after 9/11, which became the “Beacon of Freedom to the World.”
At one point ALF was granted stewardship to over 20 lights across New England. Most of the local volunteer groups and individual lighthouse nonprofits associated with those lights were started and organized by Tim under the auspices of ALF, including the Friends of Little River Light. Tim would later serve as president of that group from 2008 until 2015.
Lighthouses that received assistance as chapters of ALF during Tim’s 13-years as president included Race Point, Wood End and Long Point in the Massachusetts Cape Cod area; Boon Island, Wood Island, Perkins Island, Pemaquid Point, Rockland Breakwater, and Prospect Harbor in Maine; Goat Island, Pomham Rocks, and Dutch Island in Rhode Island; Isles of Shoals and Portsmouth Harbor in New Hampshire; and Avery Point in Connecticut.
Many of these lighthouses became fully restored from their abandoned and decayed state through volunteer restoration efforts by the Friends groups, and are still maintained and utilized today as museums, gift shops, rental accommodations, day tour destinations, wedding and community venues, and motion picture filming locations.
During his tenure with ALF, Tim hosted many fundraising events, resulting in raising well over a million dollars toward lighthouse restoration and maintenance projects. In the early 2000s, he applied for and received an appropriation for $350,000 for the benefit of ALF lighthouses in Maine.
One of the more creative and humorous fundraising events was held on April Fool’s Day in 2003 when Tim founded the Republic of Boon Island, a “corrupt” government where every political office could be purchased for the right amount. As the self-appointed Regent Lord Master, he hosted a cruise on the high seas out to Boon Island Light and accepted “bribes” from donors that resulted in raising several thousand dollars toward lighthouse preservation projects in Maine.
Educating the Public
Along with promoting awareness of need, Tim believed in educating the public about lighthouses and their history in general. To that end, in 2005, he founded the Museum of Lighthouse History to showcase his extensive personal collection that eventually became a part of the current Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland.
Tim took every opportunity to champion lighthouses whenever and wherever he could by frequently accepting speaking engagements for many types of audiences, being interviewed on TV news segments and shows, and appearing in films like Lighthouses of Maine, A Journey Through Time. He worked on documentaries with PBS and the History Channel, such as the Legendary Lighthouse series and Save Our History: American Lighthouses, and particularly enjoyed answering questions on The Joe Mazza Show’s weekly quiz segment, “Stump the Lighthouse Guy.” Rarely was he stumped!
He also maintained several pages on Facebook to openly share lighthouse history stories and interesting finds with the public and to keep them updated on noteworthy lighthouse news events happening across the nation. He regularly posted on Lighthouse Digest, Lighthouses of Downeast Maine, Great Lakes Lighthouse History and Lighthouse History Research Institute pages, and fielded thousands of comments and questions over the years within those Facebook groups.
Amazingly, Tim also found time to write books! Some of the titles he penned included the Ghost Lights series, Portland Head Light: A Pictorial Journey Though Time, Lighthouses of the Sunrise County, and Lighthouses of Bar Harbor and the Acadia Region. He also started FogHorn Publishing, which has published several lighthouse books over the years by various Maine authors and others. Two examples that showcase Maine lighthouse history are Lighthouse Keeping/Light Housekeeping (Ernest and Pauline DeRaps, 2006) and Keeper of the Light (Gordon Corbett, 2012). Tim was even preparing material for writing another book entitled Lighthouse Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem, that he had hoped to work on this coming year.
Recognition and Lobbying
Through his many accomplishments, appearances, writings and leadership roles, Timothy Harrison became a well-known public figure and a recognized authority on all-things-lighthouse. As such, and for his tireless advocacy, in 2005, Tim was awarded the U.S. Coast Guard’s Meritorious Public Service Award, which is given for “specific individual accomplishments that provide unique benefits to the public and make a substantial contribution to the Coast Guard that produce tangible results.”
Tim was also later bestowed the title of Honorary Chief Petty Officer, United States Coast Guard, in addition to receiving the F. Ross Holland Distinguished Service Award, granted by the American Lighthouse Council and the Modern Day Light Keeper Award, presented by the National Lighthouse Museum.
Where government was concerned, Tim was always eager to use his writing talents to motivate lawmakers and politicians to take actions on behalf of lighthouses. He lobbied Congress in 2009 to update Public Law 100-622 to have August 7th declared as National Lighthouse Day in perpetuity.
He also launched several letter-writing campaigns, whether it was in support of creating a postage stamp series featuring lighthouse keepers, petitioning for issuance of state lighthouse license plates, or marshaling the necessary public opinion that kept the Coast Guard from razing historic lighthouse structures. Sometimes he was successful and sometimes he was not, but he was always willing to take a stand on what he felt was right. This was especially true in regards to creating the Lighthouse Digest U.S. Lighthouse Service Memorial Marker Program in 2011, where lighthouse service markers could be placed at the gravesites of lighthouse keepers across the nation.
Honoring Those Who Served
Tim felt strongly that all U.S. Lighthouse Service personnel, particularly those who died in the line of duty, deserved to be honored for their dedicated service and contributions, since as civilians, they received no official recognition from the Federal Government until after 1939 when the U.S. Lighthouse Service and Coast Guard merged.
Tim said he had started the program “because it was the right thing to do,” and Lighthouse Digest has sponsored many of the ceremonies held in the past 13 years from coast to coast. Many lighthouse groups have followed that lead and held their own ceremonies to honor keepers who served at their lighthouses. Almost 200 markers have been placed thus far and the program is robustly continued by many lighthouse organizations and keeper descendants today.
In 2018, Tim also created the nonprofit Lighthouse History Research Institute to provide an archive for the extensive volume of lighthouse and keeper research documents and historic photographs he had assembled over the last three decades. Part of the purpose behind the research was to locate the graves of keepers, in addition to their biographical details, so that ceremonies could be organized by descendants and lighthouse groups to place markers for them.
The largest grave marker ceremony held so far was at Mt. Height Cemetery in Southwest Harbor, Maine in 2016. Over 100 descendants came to honor 16 lighthouse keepers buried there and place U.S. Lighthouse Service and Coast Guard Memorial Markers at their graves. There were another seven lighthouse keepers that were found to be buried in that cemetery and had markers placed in a separate ceremony that same year.
The last big project that Tim undertook to promote and preserve lighthouse history and honor keepers was at West Quoddy Head Lighthouse in Lubec, Maine. At the time of his death on August 19, 2023, Tim was serving as president of the board of the West Quoddy Head Light Keepers Association, as well as and serving on the board of the Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland. He had just finished creating new exhibits focusing on the history of West Quoddy Head Light for the visitor center museum, located in the former keepers’ house.
The project took over two years to complete, and became a priority as Tim’s health began to fail. He looked at it as being his final legacy in fulfilling his never-ending commitment toward public education and preservation for the future.
A Legacy of Light
To say that Tim was passionate about saving lighthouses and their history was a total understatement. But as deep as that passion was, he had an even deeper love for God and his family, and both he and Kathy shared their lives together immersed in entrepreneurship, history, lighthouses, faith, and adventure.
Timothy E. Harrison will be remembered for his boundless enthusiasm, far-reaching vision, and untiring dedication to lighthouses. His monumental efforts ensured that these iconic structures and their keepers received the recognition, honor and protection they deserve. His passion for lighthouses will continue to shine on and inspire preservation efforts for generations to come.
This story appeared in the
Nov/Dec 2023 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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