For over a hundred years there has been a light marking the east side of the Grand Marais harbor entry. The first houses to hold these lights above the water were sturdy wooden towers built in the days of the Lighthouse and Rescue Service before the Coast Guard era. At least one of the houses burned. The steel tower in the photo was put in use approximately 90 years ago and has become an icon of and for the community. Keep in mind that a light of that size so low to the water held little benefit for bulk freighters carrying ore or timber on the big lake. The light was installed and manned by the government, but its purpose was almost exclusively local in the sense that it served the lesser-scale commercial interests of nearby fishermen, logging tugs, and the “mosquito fleet” of small package boats that made pickups and deliveries along the north shore.

In the 1880s the presence of a government light in their community was very much welcomed by locals as a mark of distinction and a recognition of their place, small though it might be, in the overall national picture. Locals did not build and pay for the light singlehandedly, but they were decidedly thankful of it and took pride in it being there. To them it was as much a national and social beacon as it was navigational. A hundred years later in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan taught us better by denouncing government as an often wasteful nuisance prone to growing fat and doing useless things such as installing navigational lights and foghorns where there was arguably little need for them. Reagan sided with the free market supply siders who would be more happily served if they could pile us onto spaceships where we could be charged (it would not be a tax) for the air we had to breathe.

If you’re wondering, which I doubt, I’ll clear all question by saying I think Reagan one of the worst presidents of the 20th century. I say that not because of his policies so much as for his dismal ignorance of what makes a functional and forward-moving society. It is, of course, possible to view society as a marketplace where buying, selling, profit, and wealth are the things of importance. But it is also possible to view society as a family where we make adjustments and sometimes sacrifices for the sake of the whole. If your view of the future is to be welcomed in time of need, illness, or distress into the bosom of a store, then the marketplace is for you. But I suspect that for most citizens, the market is one element or part of the larger picture. If market values were the true ones, we’d dissolve a marriage if it failed to turn a profit or its functions could be more cheaply accomplished offshore at lesser cost.

Now I’ll set political concerns somewhat aside and get back to the pure facts of the light. I got a call last week about the old Fresnel lens being removed from the light so it could be replaced by something electronic. From a marketplace view, not much bang for the buck, other than serving a small number of incidental pleasure boats. On the other hand, the electronic gadget replacing the old lens is probably more efficient and intelligent, so in theory we might be spending less to accomplish the thing that doesn’t need much doing. The marketplace might also suggest that the old lens be auctioned or sold off as scrap to give at least some small return back. The market did not prevail, and instead of a profitable auction where a private collector could have purchased the piece for personal use and enjoyment, the Fresnel lens is going into a museum where it will cost the public to house and care for it. Such dreadful waste would never happen in the market, would it? The rare lens made between approximately 1860 and 1880 would have disappeared from public view at no cost to us whatever, but with the benefit of a handsome return so potentially useful in helping us further reduce taxes on those most unwilling to contribute outside the sphere of self-interest.

As you’ve just read, a pure fact approach can be a guise for political or philosophic action. When you look at one small item such as the Grand Marais harbor light, you and I really are faced with a slew of conflicting positions. If the Reagan view is held, then the government should never have done so wasteful a thing as install a nonessential light to begin with, or keep it operating now. If the community view is favored, then the expense and commitment are justified and worthy. Is our guide to be an ideal of community or one of economy? Or is it a case of deciding which to put first or of how to balance their conflicting interests?

I don’t feel as if I have a horse in this race, so it was a surprise to me when I was told a pamphlet I made decades ago is a prime source of info on the Grand Marais light. I was taken aback. The booklet was a small project. Doing it I learned there was very little information on the iconic harbor light. Lighthouse Service records were not retained by the Coast Guard, which had further shed old files each time it shut down a facility or moved headquarters. I’d suppose not storing old records saves money. I think it’s also safe to say old records lost represent a loss of public knowledge or historic record. No one is really in charge of history, so as time passes it is the “winners” who impose the story, favoring their view or slant. American history doesn’t have much sympathy for King George, does it? If you look at the Grand Marais light, you can see an icon for a community or an emblem of waste. How do you see our light?