52 Slices
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Portland Head Light

Caldwell, Bill Down East Books 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.

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Mark Island Monument Light

Caldwell, Bill Down East Books 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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Keepers of the Lights

Caldwell, Bill Down East Books ePub

“The Keepers of the Lights”—there is a ringing majesty to that title. It tempts us to invest keepers of the lights with an aura of superhuman dedication to duty; with a special resilience to storms and loneliness and hardship; to imagine them as a breed apart, a special strain of monk, mariner, saint, and hero.

Yet of course, they were humans—men and women with clay feet, head colds, bad tempers, arthritis, with some weakness for candy, spirits, dried codfish, tobacco, or gossip. They raised children who got sick, disobeyed, and lit up their lives. They had chickens that would not lay eggs, seed that would not grow, money that ran out, and oarlocks that got lost.

The little army of men, women, and children who have been the keepers of the lights for two hundred years were commonplace people. Herein lies the fascination.

Ordinary men and women have been changed into legendary heroes and heroines, not once or twice, but hundreds of times. And this miracle has happened year after year for two centuries along our coast. Do so many ordinary human beings have this stuff of greatness born in them? Or is it the lightkeeper’s job that develops these potentials? Certainly lightkeepers were not carefully selected for their sterling qualities of character. Yet the crises of their jobs transformed them at moments into human beings of unforgettable courage, who laid their lives on the line—and sometimes lost them—to save sailors and ships they never knew.

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Kennebec and Sheepscot River Lights

Caldwell, Bill Down East Books ePub

Tens of thousands of vessels have turned north from Seguin into the Kennebec and Sheepscot rivers, bound for local harbors or the once-busy ports of Bath and Augusta. Now there are river lights to guide them: Pond Island Light, Perkins Island Light, Squirrel Point Light, Doubling Point Range Lights on the Kennebec, and Goose Rocks Passage Light and Hendricks Head Light on the Sheepscot.

Steer Clear often heads up the Kennebec and Sheepscot, especially when the weather out on the ocean is cold, rough, or foggy. These are beautiful and historic rivers, brimming with hundreds of years of Maine history; they are filled with lovely islands, snug, small harbors, and remarkable hideaways for a quiet night on anchor, such as the Oven’s Mouth, approached by the fjord-like passage through Cross River off the Sheepscot.

On most weekdays, even in summer, these rivers are not crowded with other boats. A game I play in my mind is to picture them as they used to be—crowded, bristling, and busy with an amazing variety of ships.

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Whaleback Light

Caldwell, Bill Down East Books 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.

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