THE LIGHT KEEPER

His passion is collecting, resorting old lighthouses

 

The newest owner of the Big Bay Lighthouse, Nick Korstad, is shown at the top of the lighthouse tower next to the beacon. (Photo courtesy of Nick Korstad)

By Deborah K. Frontiera

Nick Korstad fell in love with lighthouses back in middle school, after a talk given by a member of the Coast Guard. Right then, he decided he wanted to live in one, but it would take many years before he could act on that dream. First, he prepared himself for a career by studying social phycology, after which he worked for Marriott Hotels for twelve years.

In 2005, he took his first plunge into lighthouse ownership, buying the Wolf Trap Lighthouse in Virginia. Unfortunately, it didn’t come with a loan or grant for improvement—which it needed badly—and Nick didn’t have a money tree in his backyard. He was forced to give up that project and sell it.

By 2010, he was better prepared and purchased the Borden Lighthouse in Massachusetts. Only about 1,000 feet offshore from the Borden Light Marina, it was much more accessible for business purposes. He sold almost everything he owned and lived in the lighthouse while turning it into a successful B&B. Occupancy was high, with some people reserving rooms a year in advance. He has since sold that lighthouse. Some people flip houses; Nick flips lighthouses. He sold two others to get the funds he needed for the Big Bay project.

But his mission with lighthouses involves much more than making a profit. On April 29, 2018, the American Lighthouse Foundation awarded him the Keeper of the Light award at its annual gala in Kennebunkport, Maine. This award is given to individuals or groups for their hard work and dedication in preserving America’s historic lighthouses. It’s a balance—making enough money to restore a lighthouse in order to share its history and importance to maritime safety in bygone days.

Nick currently owns three lighthouses: Spectacle Reef, on Lake Huron near Mackinaw City; one in Connecticut; and his recently acquired Big Bay Lighthouse near Marquette. Before any purchase, Nick does a site tour. He looks for structural issues first. How much of the lighthouse is sound? What needs to be repaired? Then he looks for hazards: testing for lead paint, asbestos and other chemicals used in the past that have been found to be unsafe for humans. These issues must be solved before anything can happen. He must also consider where to find replacement parts. There are sometimes cast iron parts that one can’t find in a run to the local hardware or building supply store. It can also be hard to match old brickwork so a building keeps its original look.

Location is also important. Weather patterns have changed over history, and lighthouses offshore or on a remote island may become dangerous destinations for tours or overnight stays at times. The biggest challenge is that, while people want to experience the past, nobody really wants to use a chamber pot and have to take it somewhere to empty it. In an offshore location, it may be hard to install running water. People also tend to want to keep modern conveniences such as WiFi and cell phone use. So, we want the past, but not really.

While there are always some period antiques in Nick’s lighthouses, there are also comfortable modern beds and mattresses. There are historic photographs of his lights hanging on restored walls and plenty of stories to tell.

Lighthouse ownership involves constant work. The minute Nick gets one thing repaired, something else crops up. “Everything always wants to return to nature. It’s a constant battle,” he said. That is especially true around the water, where increased humidity, moisture and wind do their best to corrode every bit of metal around and batter at paint jobs and wood. Fortunately he can keep costs down by doing much of the work himself.

Lighthouse ownership is not for everybody. In fact, Nick often acts as a spokesperson and consultant for the General Services Administration, the government agency that sells lighthouses to individuals and preservation groups. These prospective buyers often call Nick for advice on their purchase. He doesn’t try to scare people, but he does pull off the rose-colored glasses. How is their long-term health? Are they really ready to make this move? Are they familiar with running a boat? If he hears something like, “Oh, I’ve always wanted a boat, but I’ve never had one,” he is likely to discourage that person from buying a lighthouse. Any body of water, and especially Lake Superior, can turn on you in a moment and leave you stranded on an island or dumped into very cold water.

Nick’s interest in the Big Bay Lighthouse began around 2004-2005 when there was a buzz in Lighthouse Society that Big Bay owners were going to sell it. In 2008, he put in an offer and carried the contract, but something came up that made him put Big Bay on the back burner. By the summer of 2018, he really wanted it, and it was still for sale.

“What’s wrong with that place?” he wondered. He did a walk-through and called in the building inspector, who said everything was okay. But the yard was overgrown, so it looked rundown. People who came to see it only saw a lot of work, not the potential. Nick saw that the improvements needed were mostly cosmetic. “The innkeepers are nice people. Hopefully I’m doing them proud,” he said. The Big Bay Lighthouse has been a B&B since 1987, and Nick is the third proprietor. He feels as though he happened onto a lucky break: “If we follow our purpose, life is good. They had two offers on it the same day, but the others had a contingency of selling another place in California first. They had to retract their offer and I got it.” Nick had never been to the U.P. before, but he had been attracted to Michigan since he was young. “I’m going to live there someday,” he said to himself.

Now he says, “I’m finally home! It’s cool—lots of history here.”

Korstad finds that being able to spread the word about preserving lighthouses, see people’s enthusiasm and getting them involved in old buildings is the greatest reward. Engaging people in history is exciting for him. Even though the Big Bay Lighthouse is already open for business, Nick will continue improvements and restoration, so it’s as close to its original look as possible. He encourages people to take a drive out there, even in winter, and have a look around.

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