Lighting the way: Grassroots effort brings Sandy Neck Lighthouse back to life

Jen Ouellette

There’s a saying that history tends to repeat itself. Sometimes it predicts the future.

More than a half-century ago, a 5-year-old boy and his grandfather were rowing past Sandy Neck Lighthouse in a dory when the boy asked his grandfather, “What’s wrong with that lighthouse? Why is it broke?”

Ron Jansson fondly remembers that day, and his grandfather, as he recounts how the Sandy Neck Lighthouse Restoration Committee got its start.

“He turned to me, he always had an impish sense of humor, and with half a smile on his face, he says ‘I don’t know, maybe someday you can fix it.’”

Jansson says his grandfather was a first-generation American and actually bought tickets for the Titanic in 1914, but after some advice from a friend, decided not to take the voyage. His name can still be found on the Titanic passenger list in many records.

“From that incident on he had a very — I wouldn’t call it a love affair — but he had a remarkable respect for the ocean and nautical things,” says Jansson.

Jansson says his grandfather took him on many journeys.

On one of those voyages, Jansson was first introduced to the Sandy Neck Lighthouse. At that time the lighthouse was missing its lantern – or the top of the lighthouse.

New owners

A few years before young Ron Jansson saw the lighthouse for the first time, Ken Morton’s family purchased the property. They were the third family to own it after it was decommissioned. “[There was] a classified ad in the Boston Herald – May 6, 1950 – Old New England Lighthouse for sale,” says Morton. “That’s when my grand uncle Edward Hinckley saw that and bought the property.”

The Coast Guard decommissioned the lighthouse in 1931 and a short time later the lantern was removed, says Morton.

“The thinking was that once it was a decommissioned lighthouse they wanted to make sure that mariners didn’t think it was still the lighthouse and so they cut the top off to make it clear that this was no longer a working tower,” explains Morton.

No one knows where the Sandy Neck Lighthouse’s original lantern was placed after it was removed. “There’s some people that will swear that what happened to the tower after it was cut off was it was dumped into the channel in front of the cottage colony,” adds Morton. “I don’t think that anybody actually knows that. I think it’s basically a mystery. I think the valuable stuff – namely the optics and so on – I can’t imagine that they would have just been dumped in the water so it’s quite possible that the cast iron parts were dumped in the channel, but that the optics and things went somewhere else.”

The decapitated tower was what first drew Jansson’s attention to the lighthouse, and five decades after his first visit to the lighthouse it was still a nagging concern.

In 2004, with the help of Cape Cod historian Lou Cataldo, Jansson pulled together a small committee to work on renovating the century old lighthouse. Jansson prepared a Historic Preservation Agreement Easement for the property protecting it indefinitely to be used as a lighthouse. The committee also became a subsidiary of the American Lighthouse Foundation.

The committee worked through the community seeking financial assistance to restore the lighthouse. A huge boon for the group was a generous donation from the Lyndon P. Lorusso charitable foundation of 2002.

“They came up with probably 90 percent of the money we have now without batting an eyelash. They made the money available and with that seed money we were able to begin the project,” says Jansson.

Jim Walker, another member of the committee and former Coast Guardsman, began researching lighthouses to find one similar to Sandy Neck Lighthouse.

“He found out that there were some lighthouses in Chatham that were almost identical. So we went down to Chatham and we found that in a museum down in Chatham they actually had the top of a lighthouse sitting on the ground,” says Jansson.

“We approached the trustees of the museum and we said Barnstable is the shire town of the whole county, would you people give any consideration to either selling or donating the top of this lighthouse to our lighthouse at Sandy Neck because then we could relight this lighthouse?”

Jansson says they thought about it, but eventually said no. “We were sort of discouraged at that point. We couldn’t understand why people would want the top of a lighthouse just sitting on the ground rusting away.”

Walker got back to work and continued searching for lighthouses. This time he found there was a nearly identical lighthouse out at the Great Lakes. The committee contacted the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association and found out their lighthouse was topless like Sandy Neck Lighthouse, but they still had the pieces to their lantern.

Jansson says the Great Lakes organization was in the process of having forms made from the old lighthouse pieces so that they could recast a new lantern.

The association agreed to let the Sandy Neck Lighthouse Restoration Committee use their molds to recast a lantern for the lighthouse.

“It took us almost three years to reach this point because of all the research and running around,” says Jansson.

With the money in hand, the pieces were cast and a crew hired to do the installation last April. After all the research and anticipation when the crews began work to put the lantern together, the pieces didn’t fit.

“It would cost us another $33,000 to recast them. So Jim Walker came up with an idea. He got hold of Ed Pesce [the engineer working on the project] who came down and they did some calculations and they figured by regrinding portions of these uprights and roof panels we can probably make this fit together,” says Jansson.

“So for about a week-and-a-half he worked on grinding these panels down. The roof panels alone weigh about 140 pounds each.”

In the middle of June the group was ready to try again. “The crew went out there this time around and they were able to get the whole lantern put into place including the roof panel and the vent ball. It fit like a glove because of Jim Walker’s work.”

Just last month, through some connections made by committee members Dave and Bill Crocker, L & M glass agreed to donate and install very expensive glass for the lantern. It was successfully completed Aug. 25.

“It’s taken five years, which is a long time, but it’s taken people 30 years to get a lighthouse restored,” says Jansson.

More to be done

The committee is still working with the Coast Guard to be approved as a private aid to navigation, which will allow the lighthouse to be relit.

Sandy Neck Lighthouse will be dedicated Saturday, Oct. 13 from a Whale Watcher boat out of Hyannis. The dedication comes at the 150th anniversary of the construction of the lighthouse and the 75th anniversary of its decommissioning.

For Jansson the completion of the Sandy Neck Lighthouse Restoration celebrates another milestone. “I’m going to rest maybe a little bit easier when I think back about my grandfather’s tongue-in-cheek remark to me about ‘well, maybe some day you can fix it’. That was 55 years ago and it’s amazing in a way how words like that can be so prophetic.”