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Lighthouses of Maine

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Ancient Lighthouses

ePub

“Let there be light.”

The famous phrase might have been the prayer of a mariner looking for landfall on a black night thousands of years ago.

He’d be astonished by the number of lighthouses that guide seafarers today. There are thousands of lighthouses in the world, not counting those on navigable rivers and inland seas.

Today, it is easy to assume lighthouses were built for the benefit of ships and sailors, generous gifts from their fellow men safe on shore.

Not so. Lighthouses were built mostly by the people on shore so that they and their communities could prosper, bringing more trade their way. Commerce meant ships and ships meant commerce—and ships sought out the safest routes. Where there were lighthouses to guide them, ships sailed. So the goal of growing nations with seacoasts was to build enough lighthouses so that a vessel along their coast should never be out of sight of a light.

Today, the goal is the same, but the techniques have changed. With the advent of radio direction finders, radar, loran, and global-positioning satellites, nations are building these kinds of aids to navigation instead of lighthouses. Port cities have built modern ship-handling terminals to move cargoes, pipelines to move oil inland, and highways for trailer trucks to transport goods to customers. They have built greater airports and air-traffic-control systems to guide passenger and cargo planes to them.

 

First American Light Was For Boston

ePub

The lighthouses in this book begin in Boston and end at the Canadian border. But the focus is on Maine, because those are the lights I have used the most and know the best.

The starting place is the Boston Light, because this was America’s first lighthouse. Between Boston and Eastport, Maine are thousands of miles of indented coast—rocky, dangerous, often ledge-pocked, always beautiful—thousands of islands, some only big enough for a seal to sunbathe or a cormorant to dry its wings. Here, I believe, are the finest cruising waters in the world for small boats with adventurous but cautious hands at the helm.

The first lighthouse in America was lit without fanfare on September 14, 1716. Even in 1716, Boston and New England went about their business close-mouthed.

This entry in the Boston News Letter reported the event:

By virtue of an Act of Assembly made in the First Year of His Majesty’s Reign, For Building and Maintaining a Light House upon the Great Brewster (called Beacon-Island) at the entrance of the Harbor of Boston, in order to prevent the loss of the Lives and Estates of His Majesty’s Subjects; The said Light House has been built; and on Fryday last the 14th Currant of Light was kindled, which will be very useful for all Vessels going out and coming in to the Harbor of Boston, or any other harbors in Massachusetts Bay, for which all Masters shall pay to the Receiver of Impost, one Penny per Ton Inwards, and another Penny Outwards, except Coasters, who are to pay Two Shillings each, at their Clearance Out, and all Fishing Vessels, Wood Sloops, etc. Five Shillings each by the year.

 

Minot’s Ledge Light

ePub

Minot’s Ledge Light, off the southeastern chop of Boston Bay, is one of the world’s most famous lighthouses and one of the great engineering feats in marine construction. But the light that stands there today is not the one that stood there in 1847, built by Captain W. H. Swift. That was destroyed in a terrible storm in 1851, only three years after it had been built with awful hardships. Here, briefly, is the story.

Minot’s Rocks, also called Cohasset Ledges, have been the terror of seamen and the cause of countless wrecks. In nine years, forty vessels were wrecked on Minot’s Rocks and from six of these wrecks, there were no survivors. These devilish ledges are exposed only at three-quarters ebb tide. So sailing vessels bound with the wind heavy at the northeast were liable to be driven east of Boston Light, and too often were driven upon the submerged Minot’s Rocks.

Captain Swift began the hard job of building a lighthouse there in 1847. He had to erect his beacon on a small granite rock in open sea, only about three feet above the water; at dead low tide, the exposed surface was no more than twenty-five square feet; the rest of the time the ledge was submerged.

 

Lighthouse Board

ePub

The following chapter about the start of the Lighthouse Board is based on the book, The Modern Lighthouse, by Arthur Burges Johnson, Chief Clerk of the United States Lighthouse Board, published by the U.S. Government Printing Office in 1890. An interesting footnote for Mainers is that the first page is a Letter of Transmittal from the Secretary of State to the President of the Senate. The secretary of state was Maine’s James G. Blaine (the Blaine House is now the official residence of the governor of Maine).

There were twelve lighthouses in existence when the federal government took over the responsibility for operating and maintaining them on August 7, 1789. I’m glad to report all twelve are still in existence 213 years later. Those lights ranged along the Atlantic coast from Portsmouth Harbor Light in New Hampshire to the Charleston Harbor Light in South Carolina. The lighthouses were under the direction of the Secretary of the Treasury, who at the time was Alexander Hamilton. But the President himself took personal interest in lights and lightkeepers; witness this letter from George Washington to Hamilton, dated October 12, 1790:

 

Construction of Early Lights and the Pioneer of Lenses

ePub

If there was beauty to our early lighthouses, it came more from their good work than their good looks. They were designed and built by low-budget engineers rather than high-priced architects. So long as their light shone and they functioned, few cared about their appearance.

Until 1840, lighthouses along the New England coast were made two ways: from rubble stone shaped like a cone, or from wooden-frame towers built on the roof of a keeper’s house. Stones for the towers were hacked from nearby ledges or from loose stones collected on the beach—whatever sturdy material was close to hand. The walls were usually three feet thick at the base, where the seas hit hard, and tapered to two feet at the top, with the tower reaching twenty to thirty feet high.

Then came a dome of brick and a flat roof of stone slabs overhanging the walls of the tower by six inches or a foot. The lanterns were mounted here, by iron angle posts sunk into the masonry walls three or four feet deep.

The lantern itself was part of the keeper’s house. The angle posts supporting the light rested on the attic beams. So the roof of a lightkeeper’s house was often strange looking. When the tower swayed in high winds and heavy rain, the keeper and his family below got drenched because of leaks caused by the strain on the roof.

 

Lamps, Oils, and Lenses

ePub

Lighthouses were moneymakers—not for the sailors or the keepers—but for the contractors who built them, the inventors who patented lenses and lamps, and the oil dealers who won a government contract to supply the illuminating oil.

Winslow Lewis, for one, did well by lighthouses, and they did well by Winslow Lewis. Lewis is an important man in the story of our lighthouses. He was born in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, in 1770, the year of the Boston Massacre by British redcoats. As a young man, he went seafaring and stayed long enough to learn firsthand the need for lighthouses and the urgent need for better equipment in them. On his voyages, he began designing ways to make the light shine brighter and farther to ships at sea. So in 1810, at the age of forty, he swallowed the anchor and came ashore. This was the year he got a patent for the Lewis reflector and magnifying lens to use with lighthouse lanterns. In 1811, he installed his first reflector lantern in the Boston Light.

This was an ideal showcase for Lewis’s invention. He had plenty of personal influence around Boston Harbor because he had become commander of a group of mariners there called the Boston Sea-Fencibles, who had organized to defend the inshore islands, Boston Harbor, and the city’s waterfront in the War of 1812.

 

White Island Light, Isles of Shoals

ePub

The Isles of Shoals are those nine small islands nine miles out to sea from Kittery, which rise strangely white from the ocean. Some belong to Maine, others to New Hampshire. The division was made in 1629, between Captain John Mason, proprietor of the Province of New Hampshire, and Sir Ferdinando Gorges, proprietor of the Province of Maine. Maine took title to Duck, Appledore, Malaga, Cedar, and Smuttynose, and New Hampshire got the remaining islands—Londoner (or Lunging), Star, Seavey’s, and White.

The lighthouse, first built in 1820—the year the state of Maine separated from Massachusetts—stands on White Island, an outcrop of barren rocks, uninhabited now since the lighthouse was automated in 1986.

Once these were flourishing islands. They were rather heavily populated, and played a significant role in Maine history; they have been the scene of wonderful stories of Indian raids and shipwrecks. They were once called not the Isles of Shoals, but the Smith Islands.

Captain John Smith—that insatiable seafarer who at age twenty-six had helped settle the Jamestown Colony in Virginia in 1607—spent many years voyaging the coast of Maine, mapping and naming many islands on his charts. He never involved his own name in these christenings until he sailed into this group of barren islands. Their strange whiteness and special beauty won his heart and stirred his ego. He named them for himself—the Smith Islands.

 

Whaleback Light

ePub

The first Whaleback Light should have toppled and sunk. And it nearly did.

The first light, built in 1829 at the mouth of the Piscataqua River near the Maine-New Hampshire boundary, was shoddily built, but survived—miraculously—for some forty years, though many keepers felt they and their lighthouse would be drowned together.

The stone tower and pier cost $20,000, which in 1829 should have been money enough to build a strong, substantial light. But the contractor skimped in places his cheating might not be easily detected.

Where the lowest stones were laid for the light tower, the ledge should have been leveled off evenly to take the first course of masonry. Instead, the contractor laid the first foundation stones of the tower on an uneven surface of the ledge, and skimped by filling the holes with small stones.

When the first storm seas washed across, out went the loose stones and the underpinnings of the light were washed away. Another bit of cheating was that the contractor failed to bolt the bottom of the tower into the ledge. It is a wonder that the first storms did not wash away the entire lighthouse.

 

Nubble Light, Cape Neddick

ePub

To more than a hundred thousand summer visitors at the popular beach resorts at York; Wells, and Ogunquit, the spectacular lighthouse at Cape Neddick is the essence of handsome lighthouses on the coast of Maine. Nubble Light is easy to drive to, visitors are welcome, and the views from it in all directions have a memorable grandeur.

The light is relatively new, built in 1879. But the white man’s history here goes back to twenty years before the arrival of the Mayflower and the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock.

In 1602, the English explorer Captain Bartholomew Gosnold held a parlay here with Indians during his voyage along the coast of Maine. Gosnold named the place Savage Rock in memory of his meeting here with the “savages,” as told in this account written by John Brereton, the historian aboard Gosnold’s little ship:

The fourteenth of May, 1602, about six in the morning … we descried land that we called Savage Rock, because the savages first showed themselves there … From said rock came towards us a Biscay shallop with sail and oars, having eight persons in it, whom we supposed at first to be Christians distressed. But approaching nearer we perceived them to be savages. Those coming within call, hailed us and we responded. Then after signs of peace, and a long speech one of them made, they came boldly aboard us, being all naked, saving about their shoulders certain loose deer skins, and near their wastes seal skins tied fast like Irish dimmie trowsers. One that seemed to be their commander wore a waistcoat of black work, a pair of breeches, cloth stockings, shoes, hat and band, one or two more had also a few things made by some Christians: these with a piece of chalk described the coast thereabouts, and could name the Placentia of Newfoundland; they spoke divers Christian words and seemed to understand much more than we, for want of language to comprehend. These people were in color swart, their hair long, their hair up-tied with a knot … They paint their bodies which are strong and well proportioned. These much desired our longer stay, but finding ourselves short of our purposed place, we set sail westward, leaving them and their coast.

 

Boon Island Light

ePub

The nicest story about rough and isolated Boon Island is the story of how it won its name. For close to two hundred years, fishermen from York, eight miles away, packed emergency rations into a barrel and left it on the rocky island as a boon to shipwrecked sailors who might make it to this desolate shore, but need food to survive. The gruesome history of how shipwrecked and starving sailors survived by cannibalism led the York fishermen to put a boon of provisions on this perilous ledge.

In 1710, the English ship Nottingham Galley was shipwrecked on this unmarked ledge. Captain Deane and his crew were marooned here for weeks as never-ending storms beat upon them and prevented any passing ship from seeing their distress signals. Man by man, they began to starve to death or to die from madness. To keep themselves alive, survivors resorted to eating the flesh of their dead shipmates. (Their horror story was told by Maine author Kenneth Roberts, in his historical novel Boon Island.)

 

Wood Island Light

ePub

The biggest, most popular beach in Maine is at Old Orchard. Standing out from Old Orchard Beach, eyed by tens of thousands of summer swimmers and sunbathers here, and at the army of summer trailers at Camp Ellis, stands the Wood Island Light. A few miles to the west, marking the entrance to Cape Porpoise Harbor, is Goat Island Light, built in 1833, by order of President Andrew Jackson. These are tourist meccas now—but once it was mackerel that schooled in Old Orchard Bay and Biddeford Pool. Fleets of seine boats chased them and waited for them. A few miles offshore lies Wood Island and at its eastern end, marking the south entrance to Wood Island Harbor, stands the light, ordered built by President Thomas Jefferson in 1808.

The tower was conical, made from granite blocks. As shipping multiplied, a better aid to navigation than the conical tower was needed, and under President James Buchanan the light was improved. Today it is further improved. The light sends out two 500,000-candlepower flashes every six seconds, stands seventy-one feet above the sea, and was one of the few island light stations along the Maine coast that was still manned, until its automation in 1986.

 

Two Lights, Cape Elizabeth

ePub

Two Lights at Cape Elizabeth is a landmark for landlubbers as well as seamen. On a fine summer weekend, thousands of visitors come to Two Lights by car. There is a handsome park, with picnic tables looking seaward and chain-link fences to prevent children from toppling over cliffs.

Artist Edward Hopper painted Two Lights in 1929, and it has become a vastly popular reproduction. The painting now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It was issued on a postage stamp in 1970, the first lighthouse ever pictured on an American stamp. Today, the privately owned keeper’s house has been renovated and remodeled. It no longer resembles the house Hopper immortalized in his painting.

This lighthouse was first built in 1811 on spectacular oceanfront land that the government bought for $80. On July 24, 1811, two Maine men, Edward Robinson and John P. Bartlett, signed a contract with the government to build an octagonal tower forty-five feet high, made from “the best kind of undressed stone, with a huge boulder as a capstone.” In quick order, they finished their job by November and painted the lower half white and the top half black. This first tower, built on a cliff 125 feet above the sea, was a good mark for ships heading into Portland, but it was of no use in fog or darkness. Complaints poured in from the ever-increasing ship traffic bound for Portland, and in 1827, Stephen Pleasonton, the Treasury official in charge of building all lighthouses, decided to go ahead with plans for a better light.

 

Portland Head Light

ePub

The light at Portland Head is the best-known, most visited, and most photographed light in Maine. And for good reasons.

First, Portland Head Light is historic—one of the oldest lighthouses in the nation. It was begun in 1787 by order of President George Washington. The man who paid the bill was Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury. Second, the views from the tower are spectacular. All the myriad islands of Casco Bay and beyond are spread in a wondrous panorama: twelve other lighthouses can be seen, their beacons flashing through the night. Third, the light is very easy to get to from Portland, Maine’s largest city, and visitors are welcome.

Fourth, this light is famed in American literature. Henry Longfellow walked here often, wrote about it frequently in his poetry, and often took a sunbath on the adjacent rocks. Elijah Kellogg in his once popular series of boys’ books, the “Ellis Island” series, wrote about islands that could be seen from here; Harriet Beecher Stowe (of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame) wrote The Pearl of Orr’s Island, and poet Edna St. Vincent Millay lived on Ragged Island, also in easy view from Portland Head Light.

 

Ram Island Ledge Light

ePub

Open the chart of Casco Bay, and you can count about a hundred aids to navigation. When I first came into Casco Bay from Down East on Steer Clear, the number of buoys and lights made the approaches to Portland look the way Times Square looks to a visitor from a small town in Kansas: scary.

These traffic signals of the sea are danger warnings. Accidents had taken their toll too often before these warning signals were in place. Every light along the coast of Maine was paid for dearly and in advance by the wrecks of ships and the drowning of sailors before that light was built.

Take Ram Island Ledge Light, for example. To incoming boats, this light is a checkpoint, a routine mark coming into Portland Harbor from the east. But it hasn’t been there long by lighthouse standards. It was built in 1905, when Teddy Roosevelt was president, and is one of the last lighthouses built on the Maine coast.

The light is made from Maine granite and towers seventy-seven feet above the ledge. Its beam is visible seventeen miles away. The dangers it signals are the death-trap ledges that stretch out from Ram Island. At high water, these ledges are covered and invisible; without a light on the ledge, many a mariner had been tempted to pass too close to Ram Island, for it looked as though the water there was deep and safe. Many ships and men perished before the light was built.

 

Portland Breakwater Light

ePub

Spring Point Light and the Portland Breakwater may be the unsung heroes of Casco Bay lighthouses compared to their more beautiful, powerful, and admired elder sisters—Two Lights and Portland Head Light. They have been admired and loved by mariners who have steered to safety thanks to these two guardians of Portland’s inner harbor.

Portland Breakwater Light, conceived as the consequence of a devastating storm in 1831, was twenty-four long years getting born and built. Now affectionately nicknamed the “Bug Light,” its lantern first shone in 1855. The first keeper, W.A. Dyer, lit the fixed red light atop the tiny white tower on August 1 and began earning his pay of $400 a year. This is the senior sister. Spring Point Light, one mile southeast, was not in service until forty-two years later. William A. Lane, the first head keeper, lit this light on May 24, 1897.

The storm that triggered the eventual creation of Portland Breakwater was the northeaster of November 22, 1831. Ships in the harbor were torn from their moorings, warehouses and wharves were splintered, part of Vaughan’s Bridge was destroyed, and floodwaters undermined the banks of the important Cumberland & Oxford Canal. Portland marine interests demanded that the federal government provide some protection, and their voices were heard.

 

Spring Point Ledge Light

ePub

Don’t be deceived by the way Spring Point Light in Portland Harbor looks today. This is a new look, acquired only in 1950. Until then, there was no breakwater at this light. For fifty-three years—from the time it was built in 1897 until the breakwater was added in 1950—the light stood alone, unlinked to the mainland, a caisson light marking the danger of the ledge, which had brought too many ships to their deaths. This ship-killing ledge runs from Fort Preble out to the main ship channel, and year after year, ships came to grief here.

Many managed to free themselves on the rising tide. But the Nancy, a lime coaster out of Rockland, hit here on September 7, 1832, and the sea poured in, igniting her cargo in the strange fashion by which water and lime, when combined, smolder in a fire that is often impossible to put out. The Nancy burned to the waterline in full sight of the population of Portland.

The public was outraged at this latest shipwreck in the inner harbor. But the lethargy of bureaucratic Washington was not aroused. The office workers there believed that the Portland Breakwater, a mile away, was enough for Portland Harbor. Reluctantly, they agreed to anchor a huge spar buoy at the point where Spring Point Ledge endangered the otherwise deep water at the edge of the main channel.

 

Halfway Rock Light

ePub

Halfway Rock gets its name from its position halfway between the light at Seguin and Portland Head Light. In clear weather, the distance seems short; but in fog or gale, it seems to take forever to make passage from Seguin to Halfway Rock.

Coming from the east in Steer Clear during recent years, I have made that passage once in thick fog and once in a southwest gale, with fourteen-foot seas, and worried if I’d ever live to see Halfway Rock again. The memory of those passages spoils my feelings toward Halfway Rock, which in most people’s eyes is one of the handsomest sea lights along the Maine coast, rising seventy-six feet up from a barren acre of lonely rock, just out from the islands of Casco Bay.

Local demand for a light here started thirty-six years before a light shone from Halfway Rock. That demand in 1835 was ignored for thirty years. Then during Abraham Lincoln’s time in the White House, new wrecks revived it; plans for a light were approved by his successor, President Andrew Johnson, and the light first flashed when Ulysses S. Grant headed our nation.

 

Mark Island Monument Light

ePub

Mark Island Monument is known to every vessel entering or leaving Casco Bay, coming west or going east. This stone obelisk stands tall. The monument itself is about sixty-five feet high, and Little Mark Island, the rocky ledge on which it stands, is ten feet out of the sea. So the full elevation is seventy-five feet, visible from many miles away.

It was not built as a lighthouse, nor properly considered one, although there is a light on it flashing every four seconds. The monument was built in 1827 as a mark from which mariners could take their bearings. The monument is almost exactly in the middle of the mouth of Casco Bay, lying about three and a half miles directly inside Halfway Rock Light. It stands out to sea from Harpswell Neck and Bailey Island.

The monument, however, was not built to mark the best entrance into Casco Bay. Far from it, as there are tricky ledges here, and though it is well buoyed, this is not a preferred course into the bay. A safer course is to head in, passing outside the red buoy just west of Eagle Island.

 

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