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Fall River lighthouse back on the block after deal sours

Auction expected to start this month

Standing 50-feet high in the middle of the Taunton River between Fall River and Somerset, the Borden Flats Lighthouse has served the region's maritime community for nearly 130 years. (Jeremy D'Entremont) Standing 50-feet high in the middle of the Taunton River between Fall River and Somerset, the Borden Flats Lighthouse has served the region's maritime community for nearly 130 years.
By Alex Katz
Globe Correspondent / June 22, 2010

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After nearly 130 years of guiding ships and sailors to safety at the mouth of the Taunton River in Fall River, the Borden Flats Lighthouse was on the verge of taking on an additional role: that of a New England microbrewery.

At least that was the stated goal of Michael Gabriel, an attorney from Carson City, Nev., whose $55,000 bid was the highest in a 2008 government auction for the historic and still functioning lighthouse.

However, Gabriel defaulted on the closing and the lighthouse is once again for sale, said Paula Santangelo, a spokeswoman for the US General Services Administration.

The auction should begin by the end of the month. The collapse of Gabriel’s bid was first reported yesterday by the Herald News of Fall River.

Gabriel, who also bought lighthouses in Maryland and Delaware, could not be reached at his office in Nevada and did not return messages seeking comment.

In September, Gabriel told the Globe that the Borden Flats Lighthouse had been stripped of kitchens, bathrooms, and plumbing and he was facing restoration costs of up to $150,000.

Santangelo said the GSA, which is administering the sale of many American lighthouses, expects more interest from bidders than in 2008 for the 50-foot-high offshore tower.

“People have more interest in lighthouses during this time of the year because it’s summertime,’’ she said. “It’s lighthouse season, if you will.’’

Still, at least one previous bidder, Thomas Kern, does not intend to take another shot. Kern said he was disappointed by the structure when he took a tour inside during the 2008 auction.

“It just wasn’t what it was advertised to be,’’ he said.

Kern, who lives in Fall River right across the water from Borden Flats, was interested in potential business opportunities, but plenty of others are drawn to the maritime icon’s rich history.

“I wouldn’t say it’s one of the more prominent lighthouses,’’ said Jeremy D’Entremont, a lighthouse enthusiast and author of several books on the subject, including “The Lighthouses of Massachusetts,’’ which chronicles Borden Flats’ storied past.

Built in 1881 in a cylindrical cast-iron caisson (or foundation) on a shallow reef a half-mile offshore, Borden Flats went into service for the city of Fall River, then hailed as the textile capital of the world and home to more than 100 cotton mills, D’Entremont wrote.

He believes it was named for the wealthy Borden family, who had been prominent in the area since the 17th century. Perhaps the most famous Borden was Lizzie, a staple of American folklore who in 1893 was acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother with an ax.

The keepers of the lighthouse bore witness to tragedy and heroism throughout its years guiding vessels from the ocean into Mount Hope Bay and upriver, according to D’Entremont. In 1912, two men passing by Borden Flats capsized their rowboat when they tried to switch places. Witnessing the event, keeper John H. Paul rushed down and rescued one of the men. The other was unable to swim and drowned.

D’Entremont posted on his website another anecdote from Paul’s journal dated Dec. 12, 1922: “Oyster boat exploded with 150 gallons of gasoline — 4 men burnt, were carried to hospital.’’

Today, the automated Borden Flats is without a keeper. The Coast Guard maintains control of the lighthouse, but the GSA has been trying to transfer it, along with many others, to nonprofit corporations, educational agencies, and community development organizations.

Since there were no nonprofit bidders for Borden Flats, the GSA is again auctioning it to the highest private bidder under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000.

The act requires buyers to maintain the lighthouses and allow access to Coast Guard personnel.

Though selling to private buyers is the last resort, it is sometimes necessary to the survival of the lighthouse, said Bob Trapani, executive director of the American Lighthouse Foundation.

“In some cases we can’t avoid it because there are simply not enough nonprofit or government agencies that can afford to take them over,’’ he said. “It’s a fallback, but it gives the light another chance at preservation.’’

Alex Katz can be reached at akatz@globe.com.

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