Light Hearted

Light Hearted redux – Episode 6, Anne E. Witsenburg, California Lighthouse in Aruba; history of Kõpu Lighthouse, Estonia

Episode 6 of Light Hearted was originally released on June 20, 2019. In a history segment, hosts Jeremy D’Entremont and Cindy Johnson discussed the Kõpu Lighthouse on the Estonian Island of Hiiumaa, originally built in 1531. It’s the third oldest operating lighthouse in the world.

The featured interview is with Anne E. Witsenburg of MonumentsFund Aruba, the organization that manages the California Lighthouse near the northern tip of the island. The recently restored lighthouse, which is more than 100 years old, is open to the public all year.

Following is the complete transcript of the episode. You can listen using this player:

JEREMY

You are listening to Light Hearted, the official podcast of the United States Lighthouse Society. My name is Jeremy D’Entremont. We are recording again at the Exeter Inn in Exeter, New Hampshire. And with me again is my cohost, Cindy Johnson, operations manager of Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses, the chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation that cares for two historic lighthouses not far from where we are right now. What’s new, Cindy?

CINDY

Well, Jeremy, the biggest thing in our little lighthouse world is the repainting of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse in New Castle. The staging has gone up, the prep work has begun, and we’re all just really excited to see it painted.

JEREMY

Yes. Yeah, it just started a few days ago and will be going on for a couple more weeks. And it is very exciting. First paint job of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse in nine years. So we are extremely excited about that. On today’s episode of Light Hearted, we’re going to journey down to the Caribbean island of Aruba for a visit to the California Lighthouse. But again, the California Lighthouse is not in California. It’s in Aruba. We’ll listen to my interview with Anne E. Witsenburg of MonumentsFund Aruba about the recently restored lighthouse that is now open to the public. We’ll also have our usual trivia question with prizes. But we’re going to start today with our lighthouse history segment.

MUSIC

For the past few episodes in our series on lighthouse history, we’ve been telling you about some of the world’s oldest lighthouses that are still standing.

CINDY

In the last episode, we told you about the Hook Lighthouse in Ireland. Today, we’re going to talk about the Kõpu Lighthouse on the Estonian Island of Hiiumaa, which was originally built in 1531. It’s the third oldest operating lighthouse in the world.

Kõpu Lighthouse on a Soviet stamp

JEREMY

Local merchants convinced officials that a lighthouse was needed in the vicinity by the year 1500 with shipwrecks a common occurrence in that part of the Baltic Sea. Construction began a few years later, but with war, plague, and famine at the time, construction was slow. The tower was finished in 1531, but sources indicated an exterior stairway wasn’t added until 1649.

CINDY

A grate for burning coal and wood was hoisted to the top at that time, and in 1652 a decree stated that the fire would be strong and the watchman would not be permitted to sleep. From 1659 to 1805, the lighthouse was operated under private ownership.

JEREMY

The massive square tower has four huge buttresses that give it an imposing look. The tower was raised to its present height in 1659 with a brick extension, giving it a total height of 118 feet or 36 meters. The focal plane of the light is 337 feet above the water

CINDY

In 1805, the Kõpu Lighthouse was transferred to the Russian Crown. It was under control of the Russian Navy for many years and was in operation for 10 months of the year. A team of seven serviced the light with one on watch at all times. In 1859, a Fresnel lens was installed that rotated using a clockwork mechanism.

JEREMY

The tower was painted in 1939 with paint that sealed in moisture and didn’t allow the limestone to dry, and the mortar deteriorated rapidly. Meanwhile, the lighthouse was a target of German bombers in 1941 and the lantern and lens were destroyed. New equipment was installed after the war and the light was automated in 1963. There were some major repairs in the 1970s and ‘80s.

CINDY

The Estonian Maritime Administration still maintains the Kõpu Lighthouse as an aid to navigation. And it’s also a protected cultural Memorial. It’s a major tourist attraction and has been open to the public since 1999. There’s a cafe and gift shop right next to the lighthouse.

JEREMY

There’s a website and Facebook page for the lighthouse. Unfortunately, there is no English translation at this time. So if you want to read about the Kõpu Lighthouse on the official website, you’ll have to learn Estonian first. In the next edition of Light Hearted, we’ll be talking about the famous Cordouan Lighthouse in France, known as the lighthouse of Kings.

MUSICAL INTERLUDE

JEREMY

Next we’re cruising about 2200 miles to the outh, to the sunny Caribbean.

CINDY

Aruba, a tiny Dutch Caribbean island off the coast of Venezuela, has dry, sunny weather, sandy blonde beaches, and gentle surf. Constant trade winds bring cool breezes and cause the famous divi-divi trees to slope southwesterly. A strong European influence shows in architecture that features Dutch gables painted in tropical pastels. The European influence is also evident in the island’s languages with English, Dutch, and Spanish spoken alongside the local tongue, Papiamento. One of the most popular tourist attractions on Aruba is the California Lighthouse near the northern tip of the island.

JEREMY

The recently restored lighthouse, which is more than a hundred years old, is open to the public all year. Since 2015, MonumentsFund Aruba has owned and managed the California Lighthouse. Anne E. Witsenburg has been director of MonumentsFund Aruba since 2012. I recently had the opportunity to speak with her on the phone. Let’s listen to that interview now.

JEREMY

Anne, thanks so much for speaking with me today.

ANNE E. WITSENBURG

Good morning. How are you?

JEREMY

Good morning. Thanks so much.  Anne, please tell us about how your organization obtained ownership of the lighthouse and restored it.

ANNE E. WITSENBURG

Well, that’s kind of a long story, but I will try to keep it short for you. For years and years, our lighthouse was actually abandoned. It was owned by the government of Aruba, but the light was still in use. And after I became director of MonumentsFund, I talked to our government, to our ministers and all the departments, and they told me, “No, don’t worry. We will fix it. We have some money and we will fix it.” But this is a very important monument to Aruba. And in my opinion, it was not necessary to fix it, but to really carry out a full restoration and to get it open to the public. So it was only after four years of negotiations that we finally got the opportunity to actually buy the lighthouse from the government. And then we got into a discussion of what is the value of this lighthouse, because it’s really difficult. You can, you can put a value on a house, but a lighthouse is a little bit more difficult, but in the end we, we got an agreement. We bought the lighthouse and then restorations got on really soon. So that’s how we became the owner.

California Lighthouse, Aruba. (Monumentsfund Aruba)

JEREMY

And this was about 2016, is that correct?

ANNE E. WITSENBURG

2015, yes,

JEREMY

2015. Now I understand you also located and restored for a Fresnel lens from the lighthouse. Can you tell us a little bit about that as well?

ANNE E. WITSENBURG

That’s correct. That came as a really nice surprise during the project and the research that we did about the history of the lighthouse and also about the lighthouse keepers. We actually got in touch with the son of the last lighthouse keeper that lived next to the lighthouse and who spent his whole youth there. So he had beautiful stories to tell during that process. His son, so actually the grandson of the last lighthouse keeper, came across the lens in a small museum — closed museum — in San Nicolas on the other end of the island. And so we approached this gentlemen, owner of the little museum that was not open to the public anymore. And he told us, yes, this is the lens of California Lighthouse. And he rescued it after it was replaced by an electrical light. So it is damaged and he polished it sometimes, but it was not in the best of condition.

And he actually wanted to have money for this. We didn’t have a budget, and as a big surprise next Christmas an anonymous donator from our foundation sent me a check and told me, go buy the lens. And a few weeks later, one of the other foundations of the island told me, “If you now have the lens, I can tell you, we have the old mechanism in our backyard, fully rusted.” And so everything came back together. And then we had the third kind gesture of a gentleman in the Netherlands who is an expert on these mechanisms and lenses. He is retired. He offered to come to Aruba and pay his own tickets and help us with the restoration of both the lens and the mechanism. And so we accepted that graciously. We had some sponsors here on the island who provided hotels for them and transportation and together with students from our vocational education here on the island, they fully restored the whole lens and the mechanism.

So we are now owners of the lighthouse, the lens, and the mechanism. And we’re actually waiting for the time that government offers us a little space next to the lighthouse to do an exposition there. In the meantime, if there’s a traveling exposition that now is in the cruise terminal where cruise ships come to Aruba. We have almost one million cruise ship tourists coming in every year. And when they enter Aruba, the first thing they will see is the lens and the mechanism, and some explanation about it.

JEREMY

That’s amazing. What a great thing to have. And it’s a very large lens, right? I believe it’s a first-order lens, which is extremely large.

ANNE E. WITSENBURG

Yes. It’s quite large. Yes. And actually I wondered how they ever got it up there. We found some newspaper articles from the past because these lenses, they were ordered—in that time ee were a Dutch colony and Holland ordered these lenses in France and then the first world war came. And so they were not able to produce or transport the lens. And it was not until 1920 that the line lens arrived here. And one of the newspapers from Curacao or a neighboring island wrote, “The boat with the lens for Aruba has arrived. And we hope that people of Aruba are able to get it up there and to actually refit the mechanism.” Because it comes in like something from Ikea you would say. And actually, during restoration, we found that the whole construction and mechanism and lens have numbers on them, they could match to get the mechanism in place. And so we managed and it worked for a long time, but in the 1960s, it was replaced of course, by an electrical light.

JEREMY

Now, in the United States, many buildings at lighthouses,  at light stations, have been kind of transformed to generate income through what’s sometimes called adaptive reuse or creative reuse of the buildings. At your lighthouse, the keeper’s house next to the lighthouse has been transformed into something pretty special. Can you tell us about that?

ANNE E. WITSENBURG

Yes. It is now a restaurant, an Italian restaurant. Very nice food. I may add. And you can actually see the original house and the extensions were made so that you can actually see what was the house and what is the extension. It has a terrace with what I think is one of the most beautiful sunsets you can have in the world because you look—the lighthouse, obviously, is based on the highest place on the island, uh, in that area of the island, the location is actually called Hudishibana, which is in the native language from the Amerindians it means the high and windy place, which it is. But from that point of view, you’ve got this beautiful view over the island and also over the sea and have a beautiful sunset. So now the lighthouse is turned into a beautiful restaurant, and it’s really nice to sit down and have lunch or dinner, and they also do special parties. And now the tours that are given on the lighthouse, they also have some sunset tours. So you can actually see the whole sunset from the lighthouse.

JEREMY

Oh, that’s great. I don’t know of another lighthouse with an Italian restaurant. I think that’s wonderful. Yeah. I have never personally had the pleasure of visiting Aruba I’d really love to, and,seeing photos of your restored lighthouse gives me even more incentive to visit. So I really want to go there. But you mentioned that there are about a million visitors to the island each year. And I believe most of the visitors are Americans. Is that correct?

ANNE E. WITSENBURG

Yes. It’s just like 800,000 visitors by boat only. And then we have over one million visitors extra. So that’s a total of about two million. The other ones come in by air, of course. And about 70 to 75% of our visitors are from North America. So they make up a great deal of all of our visitors and also tourism makes up for about 80% of our GDP. And that’s why we really value our tourism because it’s such a great part of our economy.

JEREMY

Right. How many people visit the lighthouse each year since it’s opened?

ANNE E. WITSENBURG

We had some starting problems while opening the lighthouse because not many people were informed that it was open. If you check like the Lonely Planets or any other tour guides, books, it takes a while to get new information into new editions. And also on the island, many people didn’t know it was reopened. So we had quite a slow start. There were not many tour operators interested in giving tours at the beginning because everybody goes there, but nobody was used to it being a tourist attraction that you could actually enter and take a look at the view. But over the last, I’d say year and six months, we now have a new tour operator, new tour guides. And for example, they did a special Halloween weekend, which is a spooky lighthouse, and they got over 600 visitors within one weekend. So it’s hundreds of people every day who come there. And the only problem is we have a maximum of eight people that can go up there at once because of restrictions that we’ve got from the viewpoint of security. And yes, it’s a very small stairwell. And so not more than eight or nine people are allowed up there at the same time. So that sort of limits our visits or number till like 80 to 100 per day.

JEREMY

Right. What should people expect when they visit the lighthouse? Are there are guided tours?

ANNE E. WITSENBURG

Actually you can, you have a choice. You can go there and you can visit the lighthouse on a fast track tour, which means you pay $5. You enter, you get a little bit information and you go up there yourself, you take a look at the view, enjoy the view and go down again. They will be starting with tours in March every day at 10:00 a.m. Those are really full tours. They take about 45 minutes and you get lots and lots of information and you go up there with the tour guide. And then they have specialty tours, which are like sunset tours, full moon tours. You can actually rent the lighthouse for your special own events. We have the first gender reveal party for a baby. We have wedding proposals and weddings up there. So yeah, you really have a choice of what you want to see and how much information you would like to have. So from fast-track tour, which takes about 10 minutes, 15 minutes, to go up there and take a look yourself. To full extended tours with lots of information.

JEREMY

And the lighthouse is very tall. It’s about 55 meters or 180 feet. So the view must be incredible from the top.

ANNE E. WITSENBURG

Yes. And also, because it’s on one of the highest points at that part of the island, as I told you, Hudishibana—the windy high spot that we have there. Yes.

JEREMY

I understand you have a stamp available so that people with the U.S. Lighthouse Society passport can get their passport stamped when they visit there, which is a great thing. The U.S. Lighthouse Society, for people who don’t know, has this passport program—people can visit uslhs.org to learn more about that. And I believe that California Lighthouse is a one of a very few lighthouses outside the United States that has the passport stamp available. So could you tell us a little bit more about that?

ANNE E. WITSENBURG

Yes, we’re really proud to be the first one, actually, outside of North America to carry the security, the stamp. And it came about because of some tourists being in Aruba, they called our office and asked us how to get the stamp. And until that moment, we didn’t know about the passport program. So we went on the internet, looked for information, and we found out about the program, about the lighthouse society. And we really liked the idea. So we got in touch and I must say within a very short timeframe, we got the stamp and now people are able to just go to the tour guides over there and get your passport stamped. So we’re really proud of that. And as we have learned that it’s about American lighthouses. There are some of them in Canada, but we’re the first one outside of North America to carry the stamp. So we’re really, really proud of that.

JEREMY

Congratulations on that. So before we end this conversation, is there anything else you’d like people to know about the California Lighthouse in Aruba?

ANNE E. WITSENBURG

Maybe not just about the lighthouse itself, because it’s beautiful and everybody’s really welcome. Or as we say, “bon bini,” to come and visit it. But it makes part of a larger complex of many monuments on Aruba that show the history of the island. And actually, every monument has its beautiful story. And when you come over here, I hope that it’s not just California Lighthouse that you will be able to check out. Finally, the last story about the restoration, which I think is really interesting that you cannot see when you’re actually there, is that when we first checked out the lighthouse some seven years ago to see how we could restore it and what its status was, we noticed that the top of the lighthouse was in really bad shape. So it has a copper dome on top of it, which was full of holes and actually, during restoration, we had great cooperation with the Aruba port authority that really depends on the light to guide the ships still today. And during restoration, we took off the top of the lighthouse, which was a really special occasion and we made sure the light was there in place at the correct height and in place for all the ships to orientate, and the light kept on working during the restoration period. And then, in one day, we took the restored dome back, put the light in. So, yeah, this was a really, really special story about the restoration that we’re also really proud of that we managed that. And it shows the importance of navigation to Aruba because we have the cruise ships coming in and of course they use radar, but they also use our lights at night and we have so many fishermen here in Aruba till today who make use of the lighthouse. So it’s not just the tourists visiting, but it’s also really still in use.

JEREMY

For more information, I want to mention that people can go online at arubalighthouse.com. There’s also a Facebook page for the California Lighthouse in Aruba. And I want to thank you again for sharing some time with us today, Anne E. Witsenburg of MonumentsFund Aruba. Thank you so much.

ANNE E. WITSENBURG

Well, thank you, Jeremy.

MUSIC

(NOTE: The trivia contest is closed.)

CINDY

It’s now time for our trivia question. Anyone who’s listened carefully to today’s program should know the answer.

JEREMY

The first two people to answer this question correctly will win a prize. The first gets a 2019 U.S. Lighthouse Society calendar featuring photographs by 14 USLHS members. The second gets a “Lighthouse Illumination” DVD, which takes you on a tour through the history of lighthouse illumination. Cindy, what is today’s trivia question?

CINDY

Okay. Here’s the question. What kind of restaurant is now located next to the California Lighthouse in Aruba? Again, what kind of restaurant is now located next to the California Lighthouse in Aruba?

JEREMY

And how do people enter to win?

CINDY

Just send your answer in an email to jeremy@uslhs.org.

JEREMY

Right, Send your answer in an email to me at jeremyatuslhs.org. Please state that you are answering the trivia question in Light Hearted show number six and include your full name and mailing address. Again, the first two people who answered correctly will win a prize.

MUSIC

That concludes another edition of Light Hearted. I want to thank Jeff Gales, Maria Guevara, Tom Wheeler, Tom Tag, all the staff and volunteers of the U.S. Lighthouse Society.

CINDY

And we want to remind listeners that they can learn more about the U.S. Lighthouse Society, about membership and about their domestic and international tours, by visiting the website at www.uslhs.org. They can also get information about overnight stays at the Point No Point Light Station in Hansville, Washington, which is the headquarters of the USLHS.

JEREMY

That’s right. I want to remind people also that if they’re in our neck of the woods, on the New Hampshire Seacoast, they should come by Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse in New Castle during our open houses on Sunday afternoons.

CINDY

There’s more information about our open houses and other special events during our season at our website at portsmouthharborlighthouse.org.

JEREMY

That’s right. I should mention, we actually have a couple of sunset cruises coming up very, very soon. There may be a few spaces left on those. So check our website for that information.

CINDY

That’s right. Friday the 21st and Friday, the 28th of June.

JEREMY

That is correct. I also want to thank today’s guest, Anne E. Witsenburg of MonumentsFund Aruba. That does it for another edition of Light Hearted. Until next time

CINDY

Keep a good light.

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