Lighthouses in Maine

Lighthouses in Maine
Lighthouses in Maine

Throughout the years, the Maine lighthouse has been the subject of song, poetry, art and photography. Indeed the rocky coastline of Maine provides a fantastic visual backdrop for these somewhat mystical buildings. There are over 60 lighthouses in Maine. The stories of their keepers as well as the building of their edifices could fill and entire volume. While each Maine lighthouse has its own unique history and charm, the Portland Head Light is one of the most frequently visited lighthouses in Maine.

“Sail on!” it says: “sail on, ye stately ships!”

And with your floating bridge the ocean span;

Be mine to guard this light from all eclipse.

Be yours to bring man neared unto man.

It has been speculated that the Portland Head Light house in Cape Elizabeth inspired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to write this poem in the 1840s. Whether this is true or not, the Portland Head Light is one of the most fascinating lighthouses in Maine. Historian Edward Rowe Snow believed that the Portland Head Light symbolized the state of Maine, which is ornamented by a rocky coastline, breaking waves, sparkling water and clear, pure salt air.

The history of the Portland Head Light dates back to the 18th century, when Maine was a part of Massachusetts. Although Portland was America’s 6th busiest port, there were no lighthouses in Maine. In 1787, the deaths of two people in a shipwreck near Cushing Island lead to the appropriation of $750 for a lighthouse. Due to insufficient funds, the project was delayed until 1790, when Congress decided to add an additional $1500 for the project. They originally planed for a 58-foot tower. However, when they realized that the light would be blocked from the south they decided to extend the tower of this Maine lighthouse to 72 feet.

President George Washington decided to make Captain Joseph Greenleaf, a Revolutionary War veteran, the first keeper of the Portland Head Light. At first Greenleaf worked without a salary. His only remuneration was the right to fish and farm and to live in the keeper's house. Then, in 1793 the government decided that Greenleaf would be paid an annual salary of $160. Two years later, the keeper of the Portland Head Light died of a stroke.

By the year 1810, the woodwork of the lighthouse and keeper's house was damp and rotting. This was probably due to the fact that the keeper was storing a year's supply of oil in one room, which in turn put great stress on the floor. Eventually, repairs were made. In 1813, Winslow Lewis designed a new lantern and a system of lamps that were installed at Portland Head Light at a cost of $2,100. A newly designed keeper's house was built in 1816.

In 1855, a bell tower with 1,500 pound bell was installed, as well as a brick and cast iron spiral stairway. After the wreck of a Liverpool Vessel that killed 40 people, the light was improved and the tower was extended by another 20 feet. In the years that followed, many illustrious men would become keepers of the Portland Head Light. Of these, Joseph Strout, who was keeper from 1904 to 1928, is one of the most interesting. According to Robert Thayer Sterling author of Lighthouses of the Maine Coast and the Men Who Keep Them, Strout was one of the most popular keepers of his day. Perhaps this was due to his parrot, by the name of Billy. When bad weather was approaching, Billy would tell Strout, "Joe, let's start the horn. It's foggy!"

Whether you visit the Portland Head Light, or any other Maine lighthouse, expect to be totally mystified.

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