Little Mark Island and Monument in Casco Bay. The town is exploring the acquisition of the island and its one-of-a-kind tower from the federal government, which is offering it to government agencies and nonprofits at no cost. (Jerry Klepner photo)

The town of Harpswell is taking an initial step to explore the acquisition of Little Mark Island and Monument from the federal government, which is offering the approximately 1-acre Casco Bay island and its 196-year-old stone tower at no cost.

The uninhabited island lies 1.3 miles southwest of Bailey Island. The 1827 pyramidal stone masonry tower stands 50 feet tall and measures 18 feet wide at its base, according to federal government documents. The tower was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2016. Register documents call the structure “a landmark of Casco Bay’s historic maritime landscape.”

Like other beacons and lighthouses in the era of GPS, the tower has become “excess to the needs” of the U.S. Coast Guard, according to a government notice. Under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, the property is being offered to “eligible entities,” which include other federal government agencies; state and local governments; nonprofits; and other organizations for “educational, park, recreational, cultural or historic preservation purposes.”

Such entities must submit a letter of interest to the U.S. General Services Administration by July 14. The National Park Service will respond with an application and provide an opportunity to inspect the property.

The application is due within 90 days of the inspection. The Park Service will review applications and may recommend an applicant to receive the property, at which time the General Services Administration will complete the transfer.

If no such entity obtains the property, the government will sell it.

On Thursday, June 8, the Harpswell Select Board voted 3-0 to send a letter of interest to the General Services Administration.

“I’ve heard from a lot of people about this and it’s all positive,” Select Board member David Chipman said.

Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust supports the town’s effort to acquire the property and has offered assistance with the application process.

Hope Hilton, an attorney who serves on the Harpswell Town Lands Committee, cautioned that the town would have to maintain the masonry and repaint the tower’s black stripes, among other tasks. “It is not for the faint at heart to take on managing this,” Hilton said.

Records from the National Register of Historic Places detail the history of the unique building.

“The monument stands atop the island’s highest terrain and was built to serve as a (day beacon) landmark for mariners and place of refuge for shipwreck victims,” register documents state. A day beacon is an aid to navigation visible during daytime.

On March 2, 1827, the U.S. Congress authorized the construction of the tower and $1,200 to pay for it. On May 9, 1827, the federal government bought the island for $20. The structure was completed late the same year at a final cost of $1,065.54.

“The rock resembles the native rock of Little Mark Island and appears to have been quarried there,” according to register documents. The tower was painted white with a black stripe on each side.

The tower’s two roles, as beacon and refuge, make it a rarity on Maine’s coast.

From the late 1700s to the early 1800s, there were many refuge huts at remote locations along the coast of Maine and Massachusetts. “These unmanned shelters were stocked with supplies such as food, candles, a tinderbox, kindling, fuel, and a wood stove,” according to register documents.

“A refuge hut’s availability could save people from perishing due to harsh environmental conditions or remote location,” the documents state. Little Mark’s refuge was a square room at the base of the tower, measuring 12 feet on each side.

“The origin of this dual-purpose design concept combining a monumental tower with place of refuge is unclear,” according to register records. “Also unclear is their actual effectiveness in terms of lives saved compared to the expense of construction and maintenance.

“The small number of these structures suggests they were found to not be as cost-effective as lighthouses and refuge huts, and that subsequent Congressional appropriation decisions did not provide funding for others to be built.”

In 1927, a century after the tower’s construction, a beacon light was installed on top of the tower. A steel ladder on the south side provides access to the top.

Register documents theorize that the installation of the light “may relate to Maine’s 1920s economic expansion and its influence on the volume of maritime traffic in the vicinity, including ferry service between Portland and Merriconeag Sound.” The light is no longer in operation.

The island has no pier and can be inhospitable to human visitors. “The rocky shoreline is rugged and best approached when surrounding waters are calm,” register documents say. The island does, however, host a seasonal nesting colony of double-crested cormorants.