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Become keepers of a light, at least overnight

NEWPORT, R.I. -- ''I like to say, 'Stop the world, I want to get off at Rose Island,' " says Sue Conrad. With her husband, Gordon, she is getting ready for her ninth overnight stay at the lighthouse on the 17-acre island a mile off the coast of Newport.

When she first heard it was possible to stay in a lighthouse without conventional electricity or running water, Conrad wasn't crazy about the idea.

''The first time, we were coerced into going with my sister and brother-in-law," she remembers. There were two bedrooms on the first floor, and, ''Well, we fell in love with the place. At the time, we had stressful jobs. You get out there and turn off your cellphone, don't have to drive for a week, just enjoy the nature and solitude. It's definitely a step back in time, and we're step-back-in-time people."

Rose Island Lighthouse is one of about 175 lighthouses still standing in New England. It is one of dozens open to visitors, and one of several with accommodations for overnight guests.

In Port Cyde, Maine, you can drive out to the end of the road to visit the Marshall Point Lighthouse, where actor Tom Hanks ran across the lawn as Forrest Gump. The brick-and-granite lighthouse tower stands on its lonely perch atop a gray rocky cliff. Behind it is the handsome, late 19th-century Colonial Revival building where the keeper lived. The first floor now houses a small historical museum, with artifacts like a brass steam whistle from the concrete steamer Polias, which wrecked nearby in 1920.

Says volunteer David Percival, ''From May to October, we get over 14,000 visitors, and we're not close to anything."

In Stonington, Conn., the Old Lighthouse Museum, the solid, 1840 stone tower and keeper's dwelling, has six rooms of exhibits, many of interest to children. Climb the spiral steps to the tower, and look out to Montauk on Long Island, 17 miles away. Walk over glass sections in the ground floor and peer down into the lighted cistern and well below.

''It doesn't matter how courageous visitors are, they still step around rather than walking over it," says museum director Louise Pittaway. ''The cistern freaks them out the most."

Some lighthouses are easily accessible, like the one in Stonington, which is right in town with a parking lot just a few doors away. Still, each year, thousands of visitors venture out even to the lighthouse on 64-acre Seguin Island, 12 miles downriver from Bath, Maine. It takes nearly two hours to reach by boat, and the views are often limited. It is known as one of the foggiest spots in the United States. Seguin Island Light Station, one of the oldest in the country, was commissioned by George Washington in 1795.

Jeremy D'Entremont, author of ''The Lighthouses of Connecticut" (Commonwealth Editions, 2005), thinks he knows why these places are so enticing.

''There's something primal about it that appeals to people," he says. ''There is this guiding light in the darkness, built for no other reason than to help people."

D'Entremont has visited about 200 lighthouses over the years, most in New England, collecting their histories and stories, photographing them, and putting the results on his website, www.lighthouse.cc.

''What interests me most is the human history," he says. ''Stories of keepers, families who lived there, storms, shipwrecks. And even though there aren't keepers anymore, I feel the lighthouses themselves are alive in a way. They have a story they could tell, dramatic events that have happened, people going to extraordinary lengths to keep the light lit in a storm."

''No CD player, no video games, no TV or DVD players," Kathy Viera Baker recalls of her family's overnight stays at Rose Island. ''It was really family time. We played cards and checkers, explored the island. My daughter played on the rocks, taking the periwinkles from the rocks and moving them into the shallow puddles left by the tide going out, calling them her periwinkle hotels."

One draw of staying at a lighthouse is just that: leaving behind the complications and busyness of contemporary life. Another is the opportunity to help in the ongoing effort to restore and operate them.

''Part of the staying is working," says Conrad of the Rose Island Lighthouse. ''The island has a NOAA weather station, so you record the weather. You make your own electricity with a wind generator, so you also record how much electricity has been generated and how much you use."

Bottled water is provided for drinking, but all the rest is collected there.

''The basement has a 3,000-gallon cistern for collecting rainwater off the roof," says Conrad. ''We're daily checking the PH level and treating the water if necessary. If it's raining, you have to divert the water so it will run into the cistern in the basement."

Try our interactive maps for more information on New England lighthouses, at www.boston.com/summer.

Many of the tasks Conrad and others have performed are reminiscent of those done by the original lighthouse keepers, whose job was to keep the light burning and help mariners in trouble. They polished the lens of the light and kept the kerosene full, and also rowed out in a storm to rescue shipwrecked fishermen or sailors.

These days, the lights are automated, and only one, Boston Light in Boston Harbor, is still staffed by the Coast Guard. Preserving the structures, and opening some for visits, has become an exciting opportunity for many people.

In mid-April, dozens of lighthouse enthusiasts from around the country met with government officials in Newport to learn more about saving lighthouses.

''The Coast Guard is getting out of the lighthouse business," says Timothy Harrison, president of the nonprofit American Lighthouse Foundation. ''They don't have money to maintain these historic structures."

In the late 1990s, the Coast Guard turned over ownership of 28 Maine lighthouses to towns, historical societies, and other organizations through the Maine Lights Program. Now, through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, the Coast Guard has been making additional lighthouses available for transfer around the country. Through a partnership of the Coast Guard, the federal General Services Administration, and the National Park Service, many lighthouses will be turned over to qualified groups interested in saving them. According to Kebby Kelley, cultural resource program manager for the Coast Guard, the agencies are considering 41 New England lighthouses for possible transfer over the coming years.

Cornelia Waldman, office manager of the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation, says the purpose of the April meeting was simple: ''If you've got your eye on a lighthouse and want to be a part of saving it, here's what you need to do." It includes a lengthy application process and information about ''local, state, and federal authorities you need to coordinate with to save a piece of property successfully."

Even though the government is essentially giving the lighthouses away, adopting one isn't easy, says Harrison.

''Lighthouses are expensive," he says. ''They've often been abandoned and left to the elements. You have to restore it, you have to prove you can sustain it into the future, insure it, and every part of restoration has to be approved, down to the paint you're going to use." Another important caveat: ''You have to make sure to have it open to the public."

It also helps to like the history. In Stonington, Pittaway says one of the stories that particularly moved her at her own lighthouse was that of Patty Potter, whose husband, William, was the keeper in the early 19th century. Pittaway examined the burial records, and found that two of the Potters' three children had died before William became keeper; they then had another daughter. In 1842, William died, and Patty became lighthouse keeper until 1854.

''While she was keeper, both her daughters died," says Pittaway. ''So by the time she retired, she'd lost her husband and all her children."

Potter retired at 71, but lived to be 86, a longevity Pittaway says may be related to ''all that climbing up into the tower."

A modern-day keeper's job is relatively light lifting in comparison, but a keeper can still come in handy for many of the old reasons. Last July at Seguin Island, volunteer caretaker Barbara Pedersen helped a couple of families who got caught in bad weather while boating.

''The fog was so bad they couldn't see where to go," she wrote later in her keeper's log. ''They did not have a GPS. It was getting dark. We got some blankets, sweatshirts, socks, etc., together and put them in the boathouse for the night. That meant 24 people and one outhouse!"

Anne Webster, who ran the Maine Lights Program and is president of Friends of Seguin Island, praises the volunteer keepers and others who have been working to restore the property.

''There's such a positive attitude," she says. ''Everybody has such a sense of, 'Keep the light shining, keep the light burning.' "

Still, even hard-working caretakers like a break. At the Keeper's House Inn, part of the Robinson Point Lighthouse Station on Isle au Haut in Maine's Acadia National Park, the stay is pricier than many, but the operations, including preparation of gourmet meals, are left to someone else.

''For a real treat, we head to the Keeper's House," says Conrad. ''There's no work there!"

Contact Kathy Shorr, a freelance writer in Wellfleet, at kshorr@mail2.gis.net.

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