A coastal village was stunned to read in the local newspaper in March 2015 that their beloved but rusting lighthouse was going to be torn down and replaced with a newer model.
Little did anyone at that time realise the amazing pedigree of the almost 150-year-old landmark in Moguériec, Brittany.
Lighthouse was costing too much to maintain
The Service des Phares et Balises (Department of Lighthouses and Beacons) said the building had to be removed as it was costing too much to maintain. It did not consult residents.
Arnaud Lampire, president of the Association Sauvons le Phare de Moguériec, told The Connexion: “We were outraged. This lighthouse was paid for in part by the work of fishermen, and it was the history of whole families that they wanted to erase for economic reasons.
“We interviewed the ‘old-timers’ to find good reasons to prevent its demolition. Everyone remembered only one thing: it was bought in Honfleur and arrived in Moguériec in 1960.”
They began researching the lighthouse’s history and made a surprising discovery.
‘Patent for our lighthouse filed by Gustave Eiffel’
Mr Lampire said: “We went round the libraries and the departmental and national archives.
“We found a similar lighthouse at Saint-Quay-Portrieux [Brittany], which was displayed at the 1867 Universal Exhibition in Paris. It looked a bit like the one at Moguériec, but not quite the same.
“Then we found a patent filed by Louis Sautter and Gustave Eiffel for the construction of small fire towers – and there was our lighthouse!
“But no one would believe us: the academics thought we were daft and the association of Gustave Eiffel’s descendants was astonished their grandfather built such small things.
“Whether our lighthouse was built by Eiffel or not, we didn’t care.
“We just wanted to save and maintain the memory of a community.”
Luckily, last year, the order form signed by Gustave Eiffel for the lighthouse – built for the port of Honfleur in 1876 and moved to Moguériec in 1960 – was found in the archives.
“We were proud and amused that the Department of Lighthouses brought an Eiffel lighthouse here in 1960 without knowing who had built it and gave it to poor fishermen,” Mr Lampire said.
Saving the lighthouse involved a lot of work
“Between 2015 and 2017, we fought hard: petitions, demonstrations, as well as heated meetings with the Department of Lighthouses and Beacons,” he said.
“We asked for the authority, while retaining ownership of the lighthouse, to transfer its management to the commune of Sibiril. This would allow us to carry out the work and seek funding.
“We soon realised that petitions were not enough and we needed to set up an association. So we approached elected representatives at departmental, regional and national level.
“We got the Comité Régional des Pêches involved, we brought our community together and over 3,000 members joined our association. The Department of Lighthouses and Beacons finally gave in, and we obtained the transfer of management. Now it was up to us to draw up estimates and carry out the work.
“To do that, we had to find €540,000. We only had a few years to do it, after which the lighthouse would be gone for good.
“We did the rounds of companies to collect donations, we brought together business leaders who agreed to help us, and we organised an auction of paintings donated by the navy’s painters.
“But that wasn’t enough, so we contacted the Pays de Morlaix to put together an application for European and then regional subsidies.
“It took a lot of paperwork, but we were determined,” he said.
Reinstalling renovated lighthouse restored community pride
Over the course of 18 months, the association raised nearly €200,000, subsidies came in too, and renovation work could finally begin.
Mr Lampire remembers two memorable moments: the lighthouse being taken away for repair, and its reinstallation a few weeks ago.
“When it left, we said we had succeeded, we had fought and worked hard. When it came back, it was also the collective memory that we were bringing back.
“We had the impression that we were giving something back to a village, that we were restoring pride to its inhabitants, that life could go on as if nothing had happened.
“We had succeeded in opposing an arbitrary decision and we had done the work that the administration didn’t want to do. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Amid great emotion, the Moguériec lighthouse was re-inaugurated on September 23.
In December, the association, which no longer has any reason to exist, will be dissolved, he said.
“As we say in Moguériec: ‘it’s not an Eiffel lighthouse that we have restored – it’s the memory and pride of the people here’.”