52 Slices
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Construction of Early Lights and the Pioneer of Lenses

Caldwell, Bill Down East Books 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.

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Burnt Coat Harbor Light

Caldwell, Bill Down East Books ePub

Cruising east from Stonington, Steer Clear left astern jaunty Grog Island, comes between Saddleback and Shingle Islands, and from the bell buoy there set course across the splendidly named Jericho and Toothacher Bays for Burnt Harbor Light on Hockamock Head on Swans Island.

Burnt Coat is, many say, a corruption of the French name Brule Cote, a name given this spot in the 17th century because the land had been burned over by a wildfire.

Steer Clear had a hard time making this harbor on our first trip here. We had been running slowly in fog from the bell of Halibut Rocks, four miles away, on a well-held compass course to the bell by Harbor Island, near the entrance to Burnt Coat.

We didn’t hear that bell when we thought we should and so made a very easy slow turn from where we thought the bell should be and put our bow toward the light and fog horn on Hockamock Head, hoping to spot the light glimmering through the fog or hear the horn. Neither. Nothing.

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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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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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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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