Pete Jurewicz flicked water from his big toe and leaned back in the large metal tub. It was perched upon a circular deck 50 feet above Chesapeake Bay. He could see his hometown, Hampton, Va., four miles away. A huge cargo ship passed silently beneath his soaking body. Pete sighed contentedly and turned in the tub to watch. He likes to rest with his eyes open, so he can see his dream.
“Where else on this whole Eastern Seaboard can you say, I’ve got vacation property with nobody within four miles of me?”
He owns Thimble Shoals lighthouse, near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. Pete is part of a small but growing club: private citizens who are buying lighthouses from the Coast Guard. An Amendment to the National Historic Preservation Act in 2000 made it possible for people to bid for eligible lighthouses if the Coast Guard could not find a state, city or nonprofit organization to take over ownership and upkeep. For most civic groups the upkeep would be too costly, so now the Coast Guard is holding auctions online. There are about 200 lighthouses for sale all around the country and, ironically, people are paying big bucks for lighthouses few wanted for free.
Pete Jurewicz got his for $65,000, about what he makes each year, working at a nuclear plant. His wife, Bonnie, thought his anchor had come loose.
“It's out in the middle of the water!” she giggled. “And we don't have a boat!"
Nobody reads the small print in dreams. These are not the kind of lighthouses they put on postcards. Most are in the middle of busy shipping lanes surrounded by water. Pete had to build a hoist so his repair boat wouldn’t be crushed by the four-foot wakes of passing cargo ships.
“You bounce around inside here like a pinball machine,” Pete said as we approached his lighthouse in a small metal boat. “If you have a fiberglass or wooden boat, it's crunch time.”
Above us loomed Thimble Shoals lighthouse, looking like a rusty sparkplug, screwed into Chesapeake Bay.
“What did you find on your first walkthrough?” I asked as we clanked up a metal ladder.
“I went into the basement and it’s really dark and I’m stumbling over what looked like round balls of cotton rags, about the size of a football. Turns out they were dead seagulls,” Pete said.
The lighthouse had been boarded up for decades because most modern boaters no longer rely on its beacon. Ships use Global Positioning Systems to find their way, the same kind you have in your car.
Pete pointed to a repainted wall. “I had to scrape away all the old paint. Filled a big barrel with the chips.” He spent all but 10 weekends last year working on the place and figures it will take about four years to restore Thimble Shoals lighthouse.
Once, when he was loading water from 55-gallon drums, a Navy chopper swooped in and hovered, then a patrol boat came screaming up — guns manned. A sailor holding a bullhorn screamed, "What are you doing?” Pete looked up and saw a Navy destroyer in the distance. “I’m no terrorist!” he yelled back. “Believe it or not, I own this!”
The confusion can be excused. Most of these lighthouse buyers don't have deep pockets. Casey Jordan and her husband, Ted, still have college loans to pay off, $200,000, but they bid $27,000 for the Goose Rocks lighthouse near North Haven, Maine.
Ted listened to his heart, not his wallet. He quit his job at a Connecticut hospital to become North Haven's only doctor. Ted came to save a lighthouse, but stayed to help a town.
“When your neighbor asks you to move your car in Connecticut,” Ted smiled, “it’s usually because you’re parking on his property. Here, it's because he wants to mow my lawn!”
The Coast Guard requires owners to restore these old lighthouses exactly the way they were a century or so ago. That’s too costly for Ted and Casey, so local businesses are donating a lot of what they need. When the work is done, Goose Rocks will be open to all.
“Pretty good deal, huh?” Foy Brown grinned. He builds boats in North Haven. “Yeah, probably one of the best deals we're ever going to get around here.”
Pete Jurewicz bought his lighthouse to use for family getaways. He has a 12-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son. His dad helped him buy it. Thimble Shoals was kind of like a light in the window for Pete Sr.
“I was a lifelong Navy man,” Pete’s dad told me. “When the sailors aboard ship saw the Thimble Shoals beacon, it meant, ‘Next stop, family!’” Pete Sr. glowed with the memory. “Yep, they were waiting for me at the pier.”
Pete Jr. looked at the lighthouse with so many shared memories and a tear trickled down his cheek. “Dad spent a lot of time at sea while I was growing up,” he whispered softly, like a curse dressed in Sunday best.
He turned to watch his father and his son chipping away the old paint from the lighthouse’s exterior. “When you get done with this panel here,” his dad laughed, “we’ve got 400 and some more to go.”
Pete smiled to himself. The best and most beautiful things in this world aren't just owned. They are felt.