52 Slices
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Franklin Island Light

Caldwell, Bill Down East Books ePub

Franklin Island Light deserves lots of respect as the third-oldest workhorse light in Maine—but Franklin gets little love or admiration.

Franklin was built by order of President Thomas Jefferson, almost Two hundred years ago. Started in 1803, the light has been flashing across Muscongus Bay since it was finished in 1807. Only Portland Head Light (1791) and Seguin (1795) are older than Franklin. It is a testimony of how important the shipping trade that sailed through the general area of Monhegan, Friendship, Port Clyde, and Pemaquid was to our young nation.

The light at Monhegan was not built until 1824, and the light at Pemaquid was not started until 1827. Two other Maine lights, the nearby light at Whitehead (1804) and the light at West Quoddy Head, close to the border with Canada (1808), are of the same vintage as Franklin Light. And in 1855, when Franklin Pierce—the Bowdoin graduate—was president, Franklin Light was improved and rebuilt.

TWenty-seven of Maine’s lights were not built until after Franklin had been rebuilt. These facts indicate how busy coastal shipping was in this part of midcoast Maine, and how great a danger were the myriad ledges around Franklin. For these reasons, Franklin merits respect. Keepers manned this light for 160 years, until it was automated in 1967.

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Ancient Lighthouses

Caldwell, Bill Down East Books 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.

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Mount Desert Rock Light

Caldwell, Bill Down East Books ePub

“Why here? What mad misanthrope chose to build a lighthouse on this hostile, forsaken rock, twenty-six miles offshore in perilous ocean?”

Mount Desert Rock is exposed to some of the most savage seas and gales of any light on the Atlantic Coast. Yet someone picked this place to erect a light to help mariners find the way to Mount Desert Island and Frenchman and Blue Hill bays on either side of it. And he ordered that the light be built upon a rock barely out of the ocean. The rock is a mere chunk of volcanic outcrop, a speck in the wild Atlantic. The nearest harbor is twenty-six miles away on the mainland.

On a calm day, you can walk every yard of this world in a few minutes; it is six hundred yards long and two hundred yards wide. On a calm day you might even feel safe and enjoy the ocean, twenty feet below the highest point on the rock at low tide.

In a storm, however, run fast for cover—the fury of the sea submerges every inch of the rock on which the light stands. The force of those seas is incredible. In a storm of 1842, say federal records, a mammoth rock eighteen feet long, fourteen feet wide, and six feet thick, weighing fifty-seven tons, was hurled by the wild ocean as though it were a toy! In another storm, a boulder weighing seventy-five tons was rolled like a hoop sixty feet by gigantic waves.

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Owls Head Light

Caldwell, Bill Down East Books ePub

“Which is your favorite lighthouse on the Maine coast?” I don’t know. It is as hard to answer that question as it is to name a favorite book, a favorite dog, or a favorite piece of music. Humans are fickle; our favorites change as we change, and our memories and encounters enlarge.

But Owls Head is always close to first on my list, partly because it is so handsome and beautifully situated, and partly because I am always so happy to see it. The light stands on a tree-studded cliff a hundred feet above the sea, commanding West Penobscot Bay, Muscle Ridge Channel, and scores of lovely islands.

If I am headed down east on a fine day, passing Owls Head means I have a lovely trip coming up across West Penobscot Bay, heading for Browns Light on the Fox Islands Thorofare or maybe putting into Camden.

Coming from the west, I look forward to running past Owls Head to the Ash Island can, then along the Muscle Ridge Channel, past my small beloved islands—Dix, High, Beech, and a score more where I like to anchor, swim, picnic, or spend a night.

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White Island Light, Isles of Shoals

Caldwell, Bill Down East Books 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.

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