The Lake Sunapee Lighthouses

Lake Sunapee’s unique inland lighthouses are a cherished feature for visiting boaters and residents of the area. They were built in the era of the grand steamboats which plied the lake from the 1880’s to the 1930’s, carrying passengers, luggage, mail and tourists on a circuit of the grand hotels and individual residences with steamer landings on the lake.

After a competitor’s boat, the Edmund Burke, ran aground, the Woodsum brothers, who owned the largest steamer fleet on the lake, built the Loon Island lighthouse in 1892. In 1894, they equipped it with a light, a flame fed by oil that was raised and lowered by a unique system of wheels and gears so that it was dimmer during the daytime.

Later in the 1890’s, the Woodsums built the Herrick Cove and Burkehaven lighthouses. The lighthouses were maintained by the Woodsum company, but when steamer traffic on the lake ended, the lighthouses were left to disintegrate.

In 1935, the Burkehaven lighthouse was toppled by ice damage. The Loon Island lighthouse was struck by lightning and burned down in 1960. Long-time lake residents raised money to rebuild the Loon Island and the Burkehaven lighthouses in 1983. Questions were then raised with the state regarding ownership and care responsibility for the lake lighthouses. 

The New Hampshire Public Utilities Commissioner said that agency would paint the Loon Island light but would not replace it if anything damaged it again. In the years after Loon Island lighthouse was rebuilt, the condition of all the lighthouses deteriorated. 

LSPA Steps Up to Maintain

LSPA’s Lighthouse Committee began in the late 1970s to investigate ownership, responsibility, and liability of the lake lighthouses after state agencies declined to accept responsibility for maintenance.

In 1980, LSPA President Curtis Chapman asked State Representative William F. Kidder to sponsor a bill which would give LSPA the right, but not the responsibility, to maintain the lighthouses as custodians, but not owners.

LSPA member attorney Dudley Orr helped LSPA and the legislature determine who owned the lighthouses. He stated that a title search would be fruitless because the state clearly owned the structures. Since they were built on rocks which were part of the bed of the lake, they were part of the state’s title to the lake which extends to the high water level.

Legislative Action

In 1981 the legislature passed a bill which gave LSPA “the right to repair and maintain” the Herrick Cove and Loon Island lighthouses with no liability. In 1983, the legislature amended the act to include the Burkehaven lighthouse and added that the association should carry “appropriate public liability insurance during the exercise of this right”. 

Later, a new lighthouse act was passed which gave LSPA the “right, at no expense to the state, to repair and maintain” the lighthouses, but kept the title of the lighthouses with the state. It included a specific section granting immunity from liability to LSPA and its directors, officers, members and employees. 

The Lighthouses Shine!

The lighthouse maintenance was completed by LSPA through a committee chaired by member Ron Wyman. Around 1995, the lighthouses were painted, one annually, in rotation, through the donated labor of Newport-based painter Paul Johnson and his crew. More recently, the lighthouses are maintained by LSPA members and volunteers, John Merriman and Peter Fichter, along with LSPA staff.

Older rotating bulb fixtures have been replaced with LED lighting, voltage controllers, and solar panels. Cribs and lighthouse structure continue to be repaired and replaced as needed by LSPA. Also, each lighthouse now has a distinct "light signature" in its flashes.  

The Woodsum brothers would be proud.