Perhaps not too surprisingly, the USA is home to more lighthouses than any other country in the world. There are rough 700 of them (with over a hundred in Michigan alone, dedicated to the treacherous waters of The Great Lakes.)
The state with the second highest number of lighthouses is the state of Maine – around 65. The rugged Maine coastline consists of roughly 5000 miles of inlets and islands. The first lighthouse in the state was lit in 1791 (Portland Head Light) and the last in 1910.
Perhaps what makes lighthouses so romantic is that modern navigational technology is gradually making them obsolete. The last one built in Charleston, America is close to 60-years old, constructed in 1962. Remaining lighthouses are now mostly automated, so no more lonely keepers, toiling up hundreds of steps, keeping watch, lighting the lamp, shining the brass and cleaning the lens. A bygone era.
We have always had a love affair with lighthouses. There is something about their isolated setting and the drama of a dangerous coast with its wild ocean backdrop. Each lighthouse has its own story, as unique as the intermittent light flashes that they emit across the foggy sounds and straits.
We managed to visit 11 lighthouses situated along the coast at inlets, harbours and on islands during our coastal road-trip. Here’s a quick summary of these magnificent structures and some of their stories.
Pemaquid Point, Bristol, Lincoln County
Pemaquid Point Light was originally featured on the back of the Maine state quarter (making it the first lighthouse to be displayed on U.S. currency). At 38 feet, the tower is relatively short. However, its location on the high point of the Pemaquid Neck gives it a dramatic focal height of almost 80 feet. I was intrigued to discover that you can spend the night at the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse. An apartment on the second floor is available for rent. The light is still an active Coast Guard beacon.
The structure is located on beautiful Pemaquid Point, a piece of land known for its dramatic, striped rock formations scoured by the sea. The name “Pemaquid” is an Abenaki Indian term meaning “situated far out.” At this location in the 1600s, English immigrants established a settlement. Eventually, the 200-person encampment was burned by Abenaki Indians and abandoned in the early 1700s. Thirty years later, it was once again resettled.
Pemaquid Point has been the site of many shipwrecks through time. One was the 1635 wreck of the British ship Angel Gabriel. In 1903 the fishing schooner George F. Edmunds set sail for Bristol in a gale, but was driven into the rocks of Pemaquid Point due to strong winds. Unfortunately, the captain and 13 crew members were killed and only two people survived. The captain of another schooner, The Sadie and Lillie, also died in the same storm. To this day, some swear that the area is haunted for this very reason.
The Pemaquid Point Lighthouse wasn’t constructed until 1827. The original tower didn’t last long due to poor craftsmanship (they used saltwater in the mortar mix). A new tower was commissioned and by 1856, a new lantern and keeper’s quarters were built. It was automated in 1934.
Owls Head Lighthouse, Rockland Harbor
Owl’s Head Lighthouse sits majestically atop an 80-foot bluff overlooking Penobscot Bay, near the entrance to Rockland Harbor along Midcoast Maine. Its a steep but quick climb to the top from where we could admire the gorgeous panoramic views of the bay, islands and boats.
Owl’s Head’s history has been replete with remarkable and even mysterious events ever since it was built following President John Quincy Adams’ approval in 1824.
One of the most bizarre stories is that of a couple who were frozen in ice after their schooner was broken up in a severe storm. They were brought back to life despite being covered in a layer of ice, which was subsequently chipped off and they were slowly defrosted in gradually warmer water and brought back to health.
Owls Head Lighthouse is number one on Coastal Living magazine’s most haunted lighthouse list, and there are said to be at least two ghosts at the lighthouse. One is known as the “Little Lady” and is most frequently found in the kitchen or looking out a window. Doors slam, silverware rattles, but people say her presence brings a feeling of peace. The other is thought to be a keeper from beyond the grave, reluctant to leave his former dwelling.
A famous lifesaving resident of the station was Spot, a springer spaniel owned by the keeper at Owls Head from 1930 to 1945. His daughters taught Spot to pull on the rope to ring the fog bell. Whenever a vessel passed by, Spot would ring the bell and receive the sound of a horn from the ship in return. As Spot’s favourite visitor was the mail boat, whose skipper always brought a special treat for him, Spot came to recognize the sound of the boat’s engine. Once when a terrible snowstorm blew in, the snow banks muffled the sound of the bell. The mailboat was lost in the blizzard. During the thick of the storm, Spot scratched to be let out and raced to the shore, where he barked loudly and incessantly.
Eventually the mail boat whistle was heard in reply. The skipper had heard the barking and was able to figure out his position, which saved him from crashing into the rocky promontory.
(New England Lighthouse Stories)
Marshall Point Lighthouse, Port Clyde
This pretty structure gained a brief moment of fame in 1994 when it made a cameo appearance in the movie Forrest Gump. There is a scene where Forrest ran back-and-forth across the country (the Marshall Point lighthouse tower was his eastern terminus). Marshall Point Lighthouse is situated on a rocky ledge at the tip of the St. George Peninsula, where it overlooks both Muscongus and Penobscot Bays. Marshall Point Light Station was established in 1832 to assist boats entering and leaving Port Clyde Harbor. The original lighthouse was a 20-foot (6.1 m) tower lit by seven lard oil lamps.
This original tower was replaced with the present lighthouse in 1857. The lighthouse is a 31-foot (9.4 m) tall white brick tower on a granite foundation. A raised wooden walkway connects the tower to land. The lighthouse was automated in 1980.
Rockland Breakwater Light, Penobscot Bay
Many see Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse sitting nearly a mile from shore and think the breakwater must have been built to connect the light with solid land. Actually, the breakwater was built first to provide a safe harbor for vessels, and the lighthouse was added later to keep ships from running into the structure! The breakwater itself became a hazard to navigation and as a temporary measure, until the lighthouse was built, a beacon was placed at the end of the breakwater.
The intertwined history of Rockland’s breakwater and lighthouse began in 1827, when a small lantern was set on the northern side of the harbor entrance. Then in 1832, the mason that built the first Pemaquid Lighthouse, erected a little wall across part of the harbor. Lack of funds forced construction of a bigger and better breakwater to be postponed for several decades.
There is a lovely path that takes you to the base of the breakwater. Then its a 1.5km straight out to seas along enormous granite blocks. You have to concentrate a bit to ensure that you don’t slip and break and ankle, while admiring the fishing boats and the birdlife.
West Quoddy Head Light, Lubec
Located at the easternmost point in the U.S., and as such, is said to be the first place in the country to catch a glimpse of the sunrise, the West Quoddy Head Lighthouse is easily recognized because of its candy-stripe paint scheme. This is one of only two red and white banded lighthouses still standing in the USA. A nondescript gravel roads leads to the pretty tower, nestled amongst pine trees and it’s amazing to see the first kisses of light painting the white stripes golden in the early dawn.
Thomas Jefferson commissioned the original lighthouse on Quoddy Head in 1808. The current tower is from 1858 and was one of the fist to use a fog bell in conjunction with the light. It sits inside Quoddy Head Park, a 550-acre coastal area with magnificent winding trails, a beach and a cranberry bog.
The light is now fully automated, but keepers actually lived on site until 1988. This was much later than most of the other beacons in the state, which were automated by the 1960s.
The location in the Bay of Fundy means that the beach below is subjected to some of the most extreme tides on earth. Because of the Bay’s unique shape, the tides can reach as much as 16m (over 50 feet). Below the sea cliff, the water rushes away to expose an incredible rocky beach below – super slippery but very pretty.
Mulholland Point lighthouse, Campobello Island, New Brunswick 🇨🇦
Ok, so this one is a bit of a cheat…This lighthouse is not in Maine, but in Canada, although it is the only lighthouse shared by the United States and Canada. It is clearly visible from the harbour of Lubec and gleams across the Lubec Narrows.
Mulholland Point Lighthouse, a wooden octagonal tower standing forty-four feet (12,2 m) from its base to the vane on its lantern, was completed in 1885.
Around the time Mulholland Lighthouse was constructed, Campobello Island was becoming a popular summer colony for wealthy Canadians and Americans. Among these was James Roosevelt Sr., whose wife Sara Delano had a number of cousins living in Maine. The Roosevelt family made Campobello Island their summer home starting in 1883, and it was there that their son Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who became the thirty-second President of the United States, would spend his summers.
The Portland Head Light, Cape Elizabeth
The Portland Head Light on Cape Elizabeth is the oldest beacon in Maine. It was the first lighthouse completed by the United States government, and is the most visited, painted, and photographed lighthouse in New England, based on visitors to the 90 acre, Fort Williams Park that houses it.
The lighthouse was completed in 1791, four years after George Washington commissioned it to be built. Despite being constructed on the cheap (Washington told workers to use stones scrounged from neighbouring fields), the lighthouse is one of the few 18th century structures that has never been rebuilt. The tower, however, was raised 20 feet during the Civil War to easily spot Confederate naval vessels, which frequently raided the harbour in an attempt to disrupt shipping.The lighthouse tower stands at 80 feet tall (24 m) and 101 feet above the water and the beacon can be seen for 24 nautical miles. The deep monotone sound of the foghorn is intriguing to listen to and it immediately makes you think of what it must be like to hear this sound through the thick mist while drifting about in a dark and wild ocean.
Ram Island Ledge Light, Portland
The 72-foot (22m) granite tower situated on a one-quarter mile jagged, finger of rock known as Ram Island Ledge, which is submerged at high tide causing havoc for mariners. Built in 1905, the light reminds those who observe it of the years before it was automated when keepers lived in the isolated outpost for weeks at a time manning the lamps and foghorns to keep mariners safe from the dangerous rocks around Ram Island. The ledge has long been one of the most feared spots by local mariners, despite being just over a mile from Portland Head Lighthouse.
The first navigational aid marking the site was an iron spindle placed at the southern edge of the ledge in 1855, although it was only of practical use during daylight. In 1873, a fifty-foot-tall wooden tripod replaced the spindle. This was a definite improvement, but the force of the open ocean frequently assaulted the exposed structure, and it was washed away at least three times.
On the evening of February 24, 1900, the 440-foot steamer Californian left Portland just before midnight in a brisk southeast wind with splatters of rain. Less than an hour later, not long after the pilot had left, the Liverpool-bound vessel was hard aground on Ram Island Ledge. Captain John France had let his vessel drift slightly off course, and before he discovered his error, the ship hit the reef straight on, scraping forward and coming to rest in a small hollow in the reef.
A stable and level base had to be created on the ledge and 699 4-ton blocks of granite were cut, numbered and then shipped to the ledge for setting.
The lighthouse was automated in 1958 and the last keeper left the island the following year.
Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse, South Portland
Numerous ships have run aground on Spring Point Ledge, which extends out to the westerly side of the main shipping channel into Portland Harbor. The ledge reportedly received its name from a spring that once flowed from the nearby bank. In 1832, the lime coaster Nancy hit the reef. Water and lime make a volatile mixture, and the seawater entering the hold combined with the lime to start a fire that was difficult to extinguish. The inhabitants of Portland helplessly watched as the ship burned to the waterline.
After this spectacular disaster, a huge buoy was anchored at the edge of the main channel where the reef began, but it did little good at night or in times of fog, and the shipwrecks continued. The wreck of the 393-ton bark Harriet S. Jackson proved to be the final straw. During a fierce storm in 1876, the ship ran hard aground on Spring Point Ledge in the middle of the night. The crew hung on until dawn, when they were astonished to find that they were so close to the beach that they laid down a plank and simply walked ashore. Two days of hard work were required to remove the damaged vessel from the ledge.
Construction eventually began on Spring Point Ledge in August 1896 and the lantern room, topping off the structure, was hoisted into place early in February 1897.
Fifty thousand tons of granite blocks, each weighing between three and five tons, were put in much later, completed in 1951. In 1960, the station was automated as was the foghorn.
We took a walk along the granite rock wall to the base of the light. However, it is not a smoothly paved walkway. Rather, it’s a 950-foot (300m) breakwater made by piling tons of granite in the water between the lighthouse and the dry land.
Portland Breakwater Light (Bug Light)
A fierce storm ravaged Portland Harbor in November 1831, destroying wharves and buildings. In response, a 2,500-foot protective breakwater was planned for the south side of the harbor’s entrance, beginning at Stanford Point and extending out over Stanford Ledge. A lighthouse was included in the plans for the structure.
Construction on the breakwater began in 1837, and the foundation was completed later that year. The breakwater eventually reached 1,800 feet and was uncapped for much of its length. Vessels had to pass through a narrow channel between the breakwater’s end and an obstruction known as Hog Island Ledge. With no lighthouse at its end, the breakwater became more of a navigational hindrance than a help.
This lighthouse is located in Bug Light Park in South Portland. The beautiful Bug Light Park, was built in honor of the tower and its a gorgeous spot for strolling or picnicking. The light was nicknamed “Bug Light” due to its cute, small size. Its design apparently resembles a 4th century Greek Corinthian monument. The tower height is only 7.5 m (25 ft)
Cape Neddick Light (Nubble Light), York
The Cape Neddick Lighthouse began operation in the 1870s. Named after the town of Cape Neddick, the beacon is actually located on a small land mass called Nubble Island, which is just offshore. Instead of its official name, the station is usually referred to as the Nubble Light or, simply, “The Nubble.”
Sailors first requested a lighthouse in the area, a busy shipping and shipbuilding hub, in the early 19th century. The government decided on beacons in other places, but eventually ordered the lighthouse on Nubble in the 1870s after other efforts failed to curb the number of serious shipwrecks.
Known to be one of the most photographed lighthouses in New England, next to the Portland Head Lighthouse. It is so popular that a photo of the Nubble Lighthouse was sent into space aboard the Voyager II, in an attempt to teach possible extra-terrestrials about our planet. The Voyager launched in 1977 carries a “Golden Record” etched with sounds and images of things to amaze extra-terrestrials. The Lighthouse is in good company with pictures of the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China depicting the diversity of beauty on Earth.
One of the island’s most famous residents was Sambo Tonkus, commonly known as Mr. T., who was the pet cat of one of the keepers. Over the years, the cat had become so attached to the Nubble that they left him behind.
By the time Eugene Coleman arrived in 1930, Mr. T weighed in at 19 pounds, was said to have paws the size of a dog’s, and was well known to the locals and tourists for his swimming and mousing abilities. After the cat cleared the island of mice, he would swim to the mainland several times a day to hunt rodents hiding among the rocks. Local newspapers, even had stories on the famous “swimming cat” setting off for home with a mouse between his teeth.😺
Lighthouses continue to entice us. It could be due to dramatic waves crashing against the rugged rocks, the intermittent lights flashing bravely across a dark and treacherous ocean – a beacon of hope for storm-tossed sailors; or merely the fact that the strong towers continue to stand year after year despite howling hurricanes and extreme weather conditions. The poignancy for me is the fact that almost every single lighthouse was constructed only after devastating loss of life and damage to, or loss of ships, disorientated in foggy conditions or treacherous gales.
(With credit to the American Lighthouse Foundation and The Lighthouse Friends for the facts relating to the lighthouses)