Thousands of pounds of staging had to be carefully unloaded onto tiny Halfway Rock to repair the lighthouse. Photo courtesy of Ford Reiche

HARPSWELL — Halfway Rock, located smack-dab in the middle of Casco Bay, is one of the least hospitable places in Maine.

The notion of building anything on a wave-swept cluster of stone barely jutting out of the ocean seems crazy. But difficult, wave-swept locations that are dangerous for ships is exactly where you need a lighthouse.

The aptly named Halfway Rock Lighthouse first shined its light on Aug. 15, 1871, located at the entrance to a busy port, on a navigational hazard, and perfectly spaced between neighboring lighthouses.

While the light continues to serve its purpose, since 1975 the U.S. Coast Guard – which owned the lighthouse – hasn’t been maintaining it. Due to automation, the need for a lighthouse keeper is over, but the difficulty in reaching the island even in good weather makes maintenance a non-starter.

Lack of upkeep gradually led to the tower being listed on multiple endangered historic structures lists, and it was once listed as one of Maine’s 10 most endangered historic properties.

In 2014, the Coast Guard decided to auction it off to a private owner, in the hopes someone could care for it.
Ford Reiche, a trustee of Maine Maritime Museum and a lover of history, decided to purchase it for $283,000, the highest amount ever paid for a lighthouse in Maine, and take on that challenge.

“I do not have a good answer for why I did this or what my objective is,” said Reiche, at a recent talk on his experiences at Maine Maritime Museum.

He certainly isn’t doing it because it’s easy. Just getting to the lighthouse to work on it is such a challenge that soon after purchasing it, Reiche got a call from the Commandant of the Coast Guard in Boston. “He said, ‘you aren’t going out there by boat are you?’”

The Coast Guard will only visit the island by helicopter these days. Although when they do, they can’t use the helicopter pad they tried to build in the 1960s, because it was pulverized to cobbles by the relentless surf within a year of its construction.

The boats Reiche has used haven’t fared much better. An aluminum one he used was beat up so badly, it had to be recycled. It’s now a bed inside the structure. Another boat, which was inflatable, was absolutely demolished by the pounding waves. “It’s the size of a pizza box now,” said Reiche.

Life at sea near Halfway Rock is hard. This is all that remains of one of Ford Reiche’s boats after the pounding surf had its way with it. Photo courtesy of Ford Reiche

His current boat is a military-grade former Coast Guard vessel, which has so far remained intact.

On the island, Reiche had a lot of work ahead of him. Inside, paint – most of which was lead – was peeling from every surface. Rainwater was continuously getting into the building thanks to years of storm damage. Even the granite blocks of the stone lighthouse tower – many of which weigh more than a truck – were jostled about.

Records from former lighthouse keepers show how some of that damage came about. One entry, from a storm in March 1958, tells of 60 foot waves crashing over the entire island and 75-mph winds. The keeper at the time could only watch as the boat house was demolished and the boat slip carried away.

“The island is littered with iron stakes where someone thought they had a good idea for a durable structure,” said Reiche.

A few months ago, one of the biggest undertakings yet took place. The masonry of the tower needed repairing, and to reach the outside of the 75-foot-tall structure, staging was needed.

Getting any sort of staging out to the island was no easy task. A special barge was hired, which could only unload onto the island in a narrow window during high tide. Miraculously, Reiche and the crew he hired got 28,000 lbs. of staging loaded onto Halfway Rock in one day.

Only to discover that it didn’t reach high enough.

“The second trip took four days, because weather had to be perfect,” he said.

Despite the difficulties, Reiche has persisted with his efforts to restore the lighthouse. The small house attached to the tower has seen steady progress, most of the interior is now waterproof. The original varnished Douglas fir paneling from the turn of the 20th century was somehow still intact under layers of plaster, so Reiche plans to return it to its historic appearance.

In addition to the structure, he has over 26,000 pages of information on the lighthouse that he’s obtained from the Library of Congress. Much of it includes details on the remarkable men who tended to it. One served on the structure for 29 years, two weeks on, one week off. He would row the 10 miles from South Portland every time he needed to travel.

The project’s magnitude and unique nature has garnered Reiche plenty of attention from television shows and movie producers. Currently, he’s agreed to work with HGTV and the Discovery Channel to put together a documentary on the restoration efforts.

While he has no firm timeline on when the work will be complete, he said he plans to see things through to the end.
“I do think we’ve undone 40 years of decay, and I hope it’s good for many years to come,” he said.