A heavily stamped passport with lighthouse icons
Nathan Wilson, a junior at Florida Gulf Coast University has collected twelve stamps in less than two years. Last summer, he did a self-guided lighthouse tour with his mother, earning a coveted stamp from the Cape Canaveral lighthouse which is only open by appointment. Nathan Wilson

While other attractions feel cursed by Instagram hordes, the United States Lighthouse Society is embracing social media.

The continental United States is bookended by lighthouses. In Maine, the West Quoddy Head Light sits at the country’s easternmost tip. The Cape Blanco Lighthouse in Oregon marks its westernmost point. “Lighthouses have a direct connection to the development of the United States,” says Jeff Gales, executive director of the United States Lighthouse Society (USLHS), enabling the country’s sprawl from sea to shining sea.

In the early 20th century, there were approximately 1,500 light stations in the United States. The first electric lighthouse in Dover, Kent, modified in 1875, thrust lighthouses and their keepers into modernity. However, soon the keepers themselves became obsolete—and, with the onset of GPS, vessels had little need for the beacons at all. Those 1,500 lighthouses now amount to 600 historical preservation sites—including adjacent places like light towers and and range lights. Their financial need is ongoing even if their functions are not.

USLHS, a private non-profit that advocates for lighthouses around the country, is well aware of the march of progress that turned active light stations into historical architecture. Now, USLHS is turning to social media to woo the next generation of lighthouse obsessives into visiting and hopefully donating toward their preservation.

When Gales was hired in 2004, the organization didn’t have a website or even an email address. (The board of eight is made up of Baby Boomers and non-digital natives.) In October 2018, Gales hired their first dedicated social media manager. “We’re on the precipice of something big,” says Gales, noting this is all relative given the organization’s slow embrace of technology.

As noted in this publication before, cities are increasingly experienced as Instagram playgrounds, sometimes through travel packages that come with Instagram photographers. Destinations like Machu Picchu have blamed Instagram for overcrowding and bad tourist behavior, while environmentalists have shown that Instagrammers are hurting National Parks—and in extreme cases, themselves.

USLHS’s enthusiasm for social media in this moment is indeed unique as other attractions feel cursed by Instagram hordes.

If the point of modern travel is to collect photographs, well, let them collect USLHS says. They are hoping to capitalize on the popularity of their passport program which encourages visitors to collect stamps as they visit lighthouses around the country. The passports cost $16 to purchase and a donation of $1 will get you a stamp at participating locations. A full passport book is worth $60, says Gale. (The National Parks have a similar program.)

USLHS has sold 15,000 passports a year for the past 5 years. The previous five years were steady at 10,000. Every month, dozens of full passports are mailed back to USLHS to be certified meaning that the program has brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations. To underscore the popularity, the number of people in the passport program now far eclipses the annual membership of USLHS.

Nathan Wilson, a junior at Florida Gulf Coast University has collected twelve stamps in less than two years. Last summer, he did a self-guided lighthouse tour with his mother, earning a coveted stamp from the Cape Canaveral lighthouse which is only open by appointment. An accomplishment which he, of course, shared on Instagram. The caption? “You could say today was pretty lit.”

“Not a lot of people have been up on Cape Canaveral so it makes other lighthouse people jealous, it’s competitive and fun,” says Wilson, “ There’s no two stamps that look the same, it’s like artwork.” Wilson has other reasons for being passionate about preservation—his great grandfather was a lighthouse keeper in the Coast Guard. But Wilson is sure that the passport program will win over other young people, even ones with no prior connection to the history of lighthouses.

Skip Sherwood, the director of the Lighthouse Passport Program, says the most prolific collector he knows of has over 1,000 passport stamps. Because some lighthouses give out multiple stamps, or are attached to a museum or business related to the lighthouse with their own stamp, it’s possible to acquire more stamps than existing lighthouses—with persistence.

Sherwood explains that lighthouses will send you a stamp if you went and they weren’t open, or even visited years ago, as long as you send them a $1 donation. “We're getting more and more people who traveled to lots of these lighthouses 15 years ago and didn't even know the program existed,” he says. The program is up to 650 plus locations and 6,000 passport club members. New lighthouses are being added by word of mouth.

“People [go in] saying, ‘do you have a stamp?’” The California Lighthouse in Aruba was recently added to the program this way. (A quick perusal of the lighthouse’s geotag shows plenty of exuberant selfies as well as people ‘propping it up’ in the style of the Leaning Tower of Pisa’.) Periodically, USLHS will create stamps for lighthouses that are no longer in existence. This Lost Lights series is another way to incentivize collectors to send in donations. 

Starting this month, USLHS will make a full social media push around the passport program with the hashtag #lighthousepassport (to date, used over 250 times on Instagram) and a moderated Facebook group for passport society members. The hope is to set an example for the number of independently operated lighthouse preservation initiatives across the country, many of whom receive grants from USLHS.

“When people use our hashtag, they do it so that we can see their pictures and I just want to make sure that everyone is acknowledged,” says Maria Guevara who now manages the organization’s social media. These posts already have a signature stance: “There’s a really cool picture that people [are] posting a lot where they were holding their passport and they have the lighthouse in the background,” Guevara says.

There are fifteen volunteers around the country that make sure the USLHS website is up to date  with every stamp location—still, it’s no easy task. “I keep saying, ‘Jeff, there can't be many more,’” Sherwood jokes. They get inquiries about stamps for abandoned lighthouses with no organization attached to them. Every once in a while, a new organization forms around such sites. “It's happened in Michigan in a couple of places where a preservation society takes over the lighthouse and the next thing you know we're hearing from them… It's taken on a life of its own,” says Sherwood.

All are in agreement, this is a good problem to have.

Gales sees the passport program as a combination of adventure and philanthropy. “It allows us to create a sense of accomplishment for people. With social media, your sense of accomplishment can be much more immediate,” he says.

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